My oncologist called me the other day to check in and make sure I was feeling alright as we begin the countdown to my next chemotherapy treatment, which will be on Tuesday.
“I’m doing well,” I said, “except that my hair is rapidly falling out. I mean, like, rapidly.”
“Yeah, it’s about that time,” she said. “Generally, about two weeks after the first treatment, the hair starts releasing.”
“Releasing” is the medical term for the way the poor, sad little strands come out when their little follicle homes are obliterated by the chemo drugs. It seems, to me, to be the most accurate term possible for the process. In many ways, this whole cancer experience has been about releasing. Releasing control. Releasing expectations. Releasing vanity. Releasing fear.
Due to the speed with which my hair began abandoning my scalp, I decided to come up with a measurement unit for it. So far, I’d say I’ve lost at least 2.5 cats of hair, a “cat” being defined as the amount of hair one can brush from a domestic feline in a one-hour period. If you have ever owned a cat, you know that this is an enormous amount of hair, yet my bald spots were still easily covered by my remaining tresses up until Friday night (more on that shortly). Nevertheless, I started wearing my caps anyway, in order to: a) prevent uncontrollable shedding all over everyone and everything I love, and b) get used to people staring at me as I meander around in 85 degree SoCal heat in a ski beanie.
Now, the shedding is moot: I am bald.
Or, more accurately, I am buzzed – shaved down with an electric clipper and a 3-guard like a fresh-faced army recruit.
For one thing, I got tired of waking up to a pillow so covered in hair it looked like I’d grabbed someone’s shedding collie in August and rubbed him on it. For another, watching yourself go bald is emotionally trying, even when you’re expecting it. Plus, the “releasing” process is actually sort of painful – my scalp was sore and sensitive, like I’d had my hair pulled back too tight or parted in an unnatural way and secured it that way with tons of hairspray and bobby pins for two to three weeks.
I’d heard enough horror stories about cancer patients weeping quietly as, resigned to their fates, they shaved their own heads, alone, in front of the bathroom mirror. That wasn’t going to be me. I wanted a party, because why shave your head if you’re going to be just as miserable doing it as you’d be sitting in front of the Oprah Winfrey Network pulling it out by the fistful? I called up my brother, who has sported varying degrees of buzz cuts over the years, and asked if he’d shave me down. “I’d be honored,” he said.
We invited some friends, bought a bottle of wine and some beer, and set out a chair in his living room. I felt strange – like Old Yeller being taken out back – yet strangely excited about my fate. I wasn’t scared, because Gordie surprise-shaved his head in support, and that made me: a) cry and b) get psyched up to join him. Could I have found a better man? I literally, honestly do not think I could have. I only wish he were here so that we could rub our buzz cuts together and give each other static shocks.
After we’d gotten my area set up, we poured some drinks, put on a great party playlist and my friend Pat, who has the most experience with the buzzer, had the honor of sending my tresses to hair heaven. The whole deal took 10 silly, adrenalin-pumping minutes. I honestly think my brother may have a calling in starting a business that throws big parties to shave cancer patients’ heads, because this is the way it should be. I’m so glad that I can look back on this memory as a fantastic night with friends instead of something sad, lonely and upsetting. I mean, if you’re going to shave your head, the only way to do it is with a glass of vino in hand, tons of friends surrounding you and 2Chainz on in the background.
Honestly, it’s a relief to have the whole thing over with. This is probably the most universally dreaded side effect of them all, and here I am, living through it. Kinda makes me feel a bit invincible. In fact, I’m so alright with my new look that we took it out for a test run by heading over to my brother’s friend’s apartment for more drinks, some Cards Against Humanity and a great night out.
You want to see a picture of me rockin’ the G.I. Jane? Well, I did say that this experience has been about releasing vanity…
Interestingly, today was supposed to be the day of my first marathon. March 16, 2013 – the Rock ‘n’ Roll USA Marathon in Washington, DC. I couldn’t run it, obviously – I can barely run a 5K these days – but I ended up testing a different kind of endurance. The endurance of self-acceptance, of identity, of friendship. And I absolutely cannot stop rubbing my head.