Category Archives: Coping

My trip to Richmond, measured in Important Moments in Hairlessness

It’s been about a month and a half since my hair fell out, and in that time I have really only left my house to do three things: 1) run, 2) get coffee, and 3) eat food. Recently I added 4) fly to Richmond, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

When partaking in activity #1, running, I generally just wear a beanie. I’m listening to music with earbuds in, the universal sign for “leave me alone,” and generally moving fast enough that no one will bother me, so I don’t care what I look like. Also, I usually look horrible when running, bald or not. I’m like a sweaty mess flinging her arms and legs all around all weirdly. So basically the beanie is probably the last thing someone would comment on when I’m out jogging, a distant third to “Are you normally this jiggly?” and “Is it healthy for someone’s face to be so red?”

When performing activties #2 and #3, getting and consuming coffee and/or food, I’ll put my wig on. Mostly I do this because I don’t want anyone to remark on my appearance in any way, but sometimes they do anyway. For example, I’ve recently become a frequent patron of a stupidly expensive and trendy but somehow really addictive coffee joint out here in LA, and the guy behind the counter is always super chatty with me and I can’t help but wonder if he is noticing the fact that my hair is not attached to my head.

Actually, one time, as I was leaving this coffee shop, one of those Greenpeace people with the clipboards stopped me and said, “You have the most beautiful hair I’ve ever seen!” In my head I was like, thanks, but I bought it in a store. No one can grow hair this nice. It was made in a factory, which accounts for its shine and straightness. My real hair was a rat’s nest compared to the perfection of my wig. Out loud I was like, “Ahhh I love whales and stuff but I’m really poor please don’t ask me for money!”

Recently, I took a huge step by boarding a plane and traveling to Richmond, Virginia, where I was a graduate student before the Boob Mutiny. (Muttitties? No, I’m reaching.) I flew first class because I had enough miles to do it for free and frankly, I really owe myself one, and it was CRAZY, y’all. I don’t know if it was just a super cheerful morning at LAX or if it was because I fly so damn often I got a free flight, but the TSA people were insanely nice to me. The guy drew a heart on my boarding pass! And lest you think he was flirting with me, let me assure you that I cannot possibly overstate how bad I looked. I barely dress myself when flying. Sweat pants? Check. Ripped, smelly stuffed animal I’ve had since I was 3 peeking creepily out of my bag? Absolutely. Zero makeup? Duh. Beanie? Yes.

I actually really debated about whether to sport my beanie or my wig on the plane. Sometimes you get those chatty seat partners who will ask you really invasive questions and there’s literally nowhere for you to go to get away from them, so throw one point up on the board for the wig, because it ensures no one will ask about my cancer. On the other hand, the wig can get itchy, and what if I fall asleep in one of those awkward positions planes force you to adopt and then it falls off or gets crooked and that’s even WEIRDER than just wearing a beanie in the first place? Also, if I commit to the wig and then it’s uncomfortable, it’s not like I can just take it off in front of everyone and switch to the beanie. That’d be the WEIRDEST.

In the end, I went with the beanie. Mostly because I’m normally a somewhat lazy person but when waking up at 5am for a cross-country plane ride I am extra lazy.

So now that you have a mental picture of my abject hideousness at the start of this plane ride, just imagine how ugly I was when it concluded, many hours and one long, boring layover later. It was while basking in this complete and utter lack of hygiene or fashion that I was surprised at the airport but some of my best friends and my very bestest friend’s mom, who is like my second mom. She came in the most breathtaking floor-length sequined gown to show her support for Glamoury Mammaries, while my friends held up whiteboard signs, balloons and flowers. I immediately burst into tears, all while my friend Tyler – a former professional photographer – snapped extremely high-definition pictures of me crying, snotting and drooling all over everyone. After we left the airport, we all stopped by a bar for a quick drink and a catch-up. (I still looked hideous but I didn’t care.) Thank you all so much; for a little while there, I felt like a normal 25-year-old, and that’s really the best gift I can ask for. I love you guys.

My first few days back at grad school, I still opted for the beanie over the wig. I’m a student in a small, close-knit program, so everyone already knew about my cancer. I got so used to wearing the beanie that I actually forgot it was out of the ordinary until I was attending a guest lecture, raised my hand to ask a question and the lecturer was like (and this is verbatim), “Yes, young man with the weird hair. Wait, that’s a girl. And that’s a wig. Wait, it’s a hat. A weird hat.”

In his defense I was seated pretty far back in the auditorium. People around me started whispering, “Tell him you have cancer!”, but what’s the point? It’d just make him feel so bad/awkward. A few nights before this debacle Gordie and I went to see a stand-up comedian at a local open mic, and he was interacting with a young person in the crowd of rather ambiguous hairstyle and dress and asked, “Wait, are you a sir or a ma’am?” This totally badass androgynous person replied, “Whichever,” with the most genuinely casual shrug I’ve ever seen. S/he is my new role model when it comes to beanie snafus.

The reason I was back in Richmond in the first place was actually to attend a job fair, and for that I did bother to actually put on my wig. Since I was meeting with a lot of potential employers, I wanted the first point of conversation to be my work, not my illness. My cancer is a matter of public record, however, since this blog and other cancer-related projects are part of my portfolio, so some recruiters did ask me about it. Amazingly, I actually met three other women who are breast cancer survivors. It was one of those odd moments of cognitive dissonance when I find myself being sort of strangely thankful for my cancer – not that I got it, because screw that, but because I’m now part of this weird breast cancer sorority of amazing women who are constantly showing me it’s possible to beat this thing and come back better, stronger and more beautiful than ever. Delta Delta Titties. Phi Mammaries. Boob Alpha Theta.

Being back in Richmond was amazing. For ten days I returned to my forgotten life as a grad student – spending too much money on sushi, getting berated by my professors, drinking on Abbey’s porch, and perhaps most excitingly, looking forward to the future while interviewing with potential employers. Nothing lifts my mood like a reminder that soon this will be behind me, and my nascent career stretches out before me, a winding path of infinite possibilities.

Private marathons

This post is going to be a bit of a jumble since it’s been a while since I last updated (sorry, was busy violently hating every food except macaroni and cheese and cold sugary breakfast cereal and therefore gaining 1,000 pounds), so try to bear my weight. With me. I mean, bear with me. Oh my God, I need to start running again.

I want to take a second to talk about the Boston Marathon.

You might think that doesn’t have a lot to do with a cancer blog, and ostensibly, I think you’d be right. Except that while I’m also a cancer whatever (still searching for appropriate surrogate term for survivor), I’m also a former Bostonian. And a temporarily displaced marathoner.

Those who know me personally know that I lived in Boston during the “gap year” I took between undergrad and graduate school. I moved there on a whim because my awesome friend Hailee, who was finishing up at BU, needed someone to sublet an empty room in her apartment, and I mean, why the hell not? It’s not like I had a job. I majored in French, Literature, French Literature, who remembers now – the point is, I was not a STEM major banging down the doors of consulting firms in New York and DC.

In an unbelievable stroke of luck, I landed a job almost immediately after getting to Boston, and that’s where I met Gordie.

I also met Jenny – on Craigslist. After Hailee’s lease expired I needed somewhere new to go, and since Hailee was already locked into a new apartment, I turned to Craigslist, preferred victim source of internet murderers since 1998. Having only stalked one another on Facebook and had maybe one brief phone conversation, Jenny and I decided to go for it and rent an adorable apartment together in Brookline.

You guys, I loved that apartment. I look back on it with a special kind of nostalgia, the kind that you need like a full five minute pause to appreciate. The daydreams I have about our time in that apartment literally disrupt my productivity. It was a fully certified POS with literally no counter space in the kitchen and a heating system that either worked so poorly we had to sleep in Everest-rated sleeping bags or so well that our candles melted and we had to open the windows during a blizzard and I woke up with a snowbank on my bed, but I LOVED IT, DAMMIT. It was my POS, and I loved it. It has the biggest, brightest windows and a TV Jenny and I DVR’d all our favorite shows onto to watch together later, snacking on popcorn and Indian food from the place down the street. It had a courtyard where we roasted marshmallows over a Weber grill and drank Bud Lights with our neighbors. It had a roof deck from which we watched the marathon in 2011, sipping mimosas.

Far from being an internet rapist, Jenny turned out to be one of the most awesome people I know and will undoubtedly remain a friend for life. So thanks for getting that one right, Craigslist.

Beyond all that, even, I used to spend my summers in the Boston area. Some of my fondest memories are trips up to my Bostonian grandparents’ beautiful lake house on the shores of Lake Sunapee, New Hampshire. We learned to waterski there and stared in awe as my dad, the hero, waterskied on one leg, or on no skis, or showcased his prowess on the raft that we drug behind the boat at what seemed to our tiny minds to be lightspeed warp 5 max speed, or whatever the fastest sci-fi speed is, I don’t know, FAST AS HELL, y’all, that’s what I’m getting at here. My dad and uncle were supermen at Sunapee. The sun always shone and the waters were warm and calm. Even now, even as a Californian, I admit that I prefer the serenity, the peace, the seclusion of a small New England lake to the vastness and chaos of the ocean. (If you disagree, you should read my cousin Devon’s beautiful blog, where she shares all the reasons you can imagine to appreciate the sea. She’s almost made a convert out of me, but I’m gonna stick to lakes so she has more room in the waves.)

All of that is a long-winded and probably self-indulgent way of saying: I love Boston, and it has a piece of my heart now and always.

It gave me these things:

• 1 (one) addiction to Mike’s Pastry

• 1 (one) amazing boyfriend

• 1 (one) malfunctioning, 100-year-old apartment that I love with the ferocity of a mother bear protecting a retarded, barely functioning cub

• A jillion (approximate measurement) new friends

• Innumerable afternoons spent strolling through the Common and the Public Gardens

• A breath-taking bike commute to work along the esplanade that was worth every near-death experience I had passing a car on Comm Ave later

• My first peek into true adult independence

I’m also a runner. I feel like an imposter saying that; I never ran my first marathon because I was still recovering from my surgery when the starting gun went off, sadly. I have run many 5ks, some 8ks, a 10k and a half-marathon. But runners are an inclusive group, and the title doesn’t discriminate between ultramarathoners and beginners – one of my favorite things about runners as a whole is their dedication to the idea that anyone who can put one foot (or prosthetic device) in front of the other can be a runner. Running is a celebration of the human spirit and the human body’s ability to endure. I don’t know what these terrorists had in mind, but if they were trying to tear that down, to eliminate optimism and tarnish hope and frighten people, I’m just gonna put this out there: the group of people who push their bodies to the limit for fun to run 26.2 miles and are smiling at the triumph of their spirit at the end of it are probably not the right group of people to target here.

Because, really, could there be any more appropriate symbol in the world for the unflagging optimism of humanity than the marathon?

I often think about my running when I think about my cancer. I marvel at what I achieved, and the feats I watched my body perform. I look back, astonished, on how easily I knocked out a 10-mile training run back in November, and how difficult it is for me now to run a 5k without collapsing, and how determined I am – more now than ever – to finally run that damn marathon one day, to run it to prove that nothing, not disease, not terror, can diminish the astonishing power and grace of the human body and the human spirit.

People like the Boston Marathon bombers are the cancers of society. At the very least, they bear similarities. We don’t know what causes them – faulty genes? A deficiency somewhere? Something gone haywire in the potential for growth? Trying to eradicate them is a messy effort with a lot of collateral damage (like my poor hair, RIP Brunette Michelle; or your freedom to go to a baseball game unmolested by security personnel). But one thing I know is that I am going to prevail over my cancer, and society will prevail over its.

Because if there’s one thing a marathoner – or, in my case, an almost-marathoner – knows, it’s that the game is a mental one. Attitude is everything. Crossing that finish line smiling while you bleed from the nipples and hobble off on blisters the size of silver dollars is a show of human fortitude no attack can ever steal. In whatever private marathons we run – against disease, against grief, against sadness, against depression, against hatred – the finish line will always, always, always be a place where you catch your breath, marvel at the runner’s high and swell with pride at what’s possible when people believe in themselves and in others.

Clarity

I think getting cancer is a lot like getting glasses.

Stay with me here.

When I was in the fifth grade, I started having some difficulty seeing the whiteboard in class. But I was like eleven years old, and I didn’t know a thing about anything, and I just thought that was kind of normal, to be sort of semi-blind and wander around through a world of blurry shapes and impressions without having any real idea what’s going on. Eventually, an adult realized that I couldn’t see jack, and the next thing I knew I was picking out a pair of frames in an optometrist’s office somewhere. I’m pretty sure I picked a pair that was pink, or had ponies on them, or something. I don’t really remember. But what I do remember is the clarity.

I walked out of that office – and I was just standing in a gross parking lot somewhere, it’s not like I was in the rainforest – but I looked up at this tree and it had leaves! And the grass, it had blades! What had been to me for months, maybe years, just an expanse of green shapelessness was now nature in all of its intricate and awe-inspiring detail, with little ladybugs and caterpillars that I could see.

Cancer gives me the same sort of clarity. Before cancer, my life was mostly an aimless walk, bogged down by worries about the stupidest things you can imagine, stupid even by twentysomething standards. And then somebody was like, “Hey, did you know you might be dying?” And I was like, “You mean, in the metaphysical way that we’re all dying?” And she was like, “No, I mean like you might actively be dying, right now, like a lot faster than you should be.” And I was like, “No, I did not know that, or even suspect it, and wow, that is not cool.”

It was just like that moment in the doctor’s office when they put the glasses on my face for the first time. Everything important snapped into focus, and I didn’t have to strain anymore to see the writing on the metaphorical whiteboard of life. It was very clear. Be happy. Be kind to one another. Don’t be an idiot who counts the calories in a box of See’s Candies. It’s See’s Candies, it has one million calories, and who cares? Eat the hell out of those raspberry truffles! (In moderation, obviously.) What’s more, I felt the same awe at the beauty of life after my diagnosis as I did after my glasses fitting. The same intense sense of wonder at the beautiful intricacy of everything, even a leaf, with its spindly veins and crisp green edges.

I don’t want people to think that cancer has given me some sort of higher level of transcendence, because it hasn’t. I still get mad when cute clothes look bad on me in the dressing room. I still spend my time worrying about stupid things like if I will EVER stop getting zits on my left cheek, and whose fault was it really that that one roommate and I didn’t get along? (Hers.) Basically, my life is like an episode of Girls, but with 100% more cancer.

But what cancer has given me, if not the ability to rise completely above worry, is the ability to let those worries slide. It has given me a feeling of deep appreciation for everything in life, even the bad things. I pretty much go through my days now like a B-list celebrity who gets nominated for an Academy Award they can never win because they’re up against Daniel Day Lewis or Stephen Spielberg or something: “It’s an honor just to be nominated. I’m just happy to be here.”

I am so happy to be here.

10 percent

Being born and living life is really awesome, but there’s this one pesky little thing about it that I’m kind of shocked that in however many thousands of years of scientific progress we haven’t figured out how to fix, and that’s the fact that you have to die at the end of it.

It’s not that I’m scared to die. No, wait, yes it is.

I don’t really spend a lot of time thinking about my odds of survival, and truth be told, they’re pretty good – if anything that forces you to calculate your odds of survival can be considered good. According to both my real doctors and my frenemy Dr. Google, my chances of surviving at least five years (and hopefully much longer) are about 90 percent. Which is great, but which also means that despite all of this horrible, miserable medical junk I’m subjecting myself to, there’s still this nagging 10 percent chance that I’m gonna die.

Ten percent isn’t really that much. I’m kind of a clumsy idiot so really there’s probably a 10 percent chance that I’m gonna die just trying not to trip over my own shoelaces on a bridge or something on any given day. But still, 10 percent is like, not ideal. Ideal would be zero percent. A zero percent chance of dying, ever.

It’s honestly really terrifying not knowing what happens after you die. Because that’s what scares me, really, is the unknown. Suffering will end, sadness will pass, but death is…permanent. And it could be anything. For example, I have this very irrational fear that when you die, actually, your consciousness doesn’t cease, and you remain totally aware of everything that’s happening to you as they close the coffin lid and you go insane from boredom in an immobile body trapped six feet under forever and ever. I know that’s completely insane, and if you’re a doctor, please feel free to explain to me why, so I can stop worrying about it. But my point is like, there’s no way to know.

Maybe Heaven is real and when I die God’s gonna be up there looking like The Dude (which is how I’ve always pictured Him, like a big, laid-back guy in a sweater and moccasins who hates The Eagles) and he’s gonna be like, “Hey, buddy! We’ve got your room ready over here, it’s right next to your grandparents and Princess Diana, and they are all like, super excited to hang out with you. Also, we serve wine. Red or white?” Or maybe the Hindus have it right, and as I take my last breaths, I’m suddenly going to blink back into existence as a majestic bird of prey floating high above cold Alaskan waters. Or maybe it’s just nothingness. Maybe it’s just peace, and love, and contentment for all eternity.

Most of the time, I take my 90 percent odds and I just feel grateful for them. I know I’m in a small minority of incredibly lucky cancer patients who, at least for the time being, can not just hope but can expect to recover someday. But sometimes, I can’t shake the fear that I’m going to wind up in that 10 percent, and sometimes it gets to me to the point that I cry and worry and feel that I might get gypped out of the best years of my life. Once, in one of the latter moods, I cried to Gordie – the most logical and measured of all logical and measured people, ever – that I was sinking into a vicious cycle of terror.

“Babe,” he said, calm as ever, “if there were a 90 percent chance of rain tomorrow, would you bring an umbrella?”

Ninety percent is a pretty good bet, but if there’s one thing I’ve taken away from this experience, it’s this: Nothing in life is certain, ever.  No matter how low or high the odds, anything is possible. Existence is basically a cosmic trip to Las Vegas where in between enjoying yourself at the pool and the dance club you bet your soul on stuff like driving on the freeway, eating red meat and SCUBA diving, and eventually the house always wins but that doesn’t mean you can’t have the best bachelorette party ever while you’re there. So screw statistics. Obliterate odds. Just live today. But don’t forget your umbrella.

The hidden perks of baldness

Premature baldness runs in my family.

My grandfather hasn’t had a strand of hair on his head since probably his 35th birthday, and my dad wasn’t far behind. When I was in third grade, I drew a picture of my father with hair shaped sort of like a fleur-de-lis, with three distinct lobes representing his rapidly receding hairline. (Soon after, all trace of any kind of hairline disappeared entirely, replaced by a shiny, smooth dome that looks strangely handsome on him, like a younger, even more badass Bruce Willis.) Even my younger brother, whose determined locks are still hanging on for now, is constantly stressed he’ll be the next Hairless Heir to the family name.

But the joke’s on him, because I have usurped the throne.

I am now, without question, the baldest one in the family. When selecting emojis to represent myself in text message vignettes, I am now forced to pick the old, bald man over the brunette in pink in order to remain most truthful to my current appearance. I’m not entirely hairless; I look a bit like a featherless baby bird, with weird fuzz sticking up in odd places, barely clinging on to my Casper-white skull. But being bald, or nearly so, isn’t all bad! In fact, I’ve found a number of silver linings to my new condition.

1. My shower time has been reduced by 75%.

I used to spend at least, at least, 30 minutes in the shower each morning, shampooing my hair twice and standing under the faucet singing horribly off-tune country music into the hairbrush while I waited for the conditioner to work its magic. These days, I’m stumped as to what to do with myself after about a minute and thirty seconds. Before I went bald, I never realized how much of my shower time was devoted solely to hair. If I wasn’t washing the hair on my head, I was shaving the hair on my legs or plucking the hair in my eyebrows. Since I no longer have to do any of those things, I can now devote a far larger portion of my shower time to torturing everyone with my singing voice. You’re all welcome.

2. I’m reducing noise pollution.

I literally don’t know where my blowdryer is.

3. I can pack far more lightly.

Time to pack for a trip? Hold up, just let me allot a good square foot of space and at least seven pounds of my luggage quota to my blowdryer, flat iron, round brush, curling iron, hairspray, headbands, ponytail holders, comb and shine serum. No longer, my friends! I can now pack two extra pairs of shoes, a whole ‘nother pair of jeans, a special dress and yet another sweater just in case there’s some weird chill on our tropical vacay in the space that I used to dedicate solely to hair products. In fact, packing for St. Louis, I found myself with UNUSED SPACE in my luggage for the first time in my memory. (I wasn’t bald yet, but my pixie didn’t require as much attention as my old, cascading locks did.) So this is what it’s like when Gordie packs to come visit me.

4. I look like a diva.

There’s something about a wig that’s just so much more polished and voluminous and shiny than my real hair. The curls always stay put, bobby pins don’t get lost in the Bermuda Triangle between my left ear, the nape of my neck and the crown of my head, and it feels amazing to stand in front of the mirror and go from Wallace Shawn to Beyonce in two seconds flat.

5. Beanies are cozy.

Beanies just feel good on my head, y’all. It’s like letting your scalp sit in front of the fireplace with some hot cocoa and a warm blankie. By the way, you know when you go to the hairdresser and she washes your hair and spends like, way, way too short of a time scratching your scalp with her fingernails and it feels like you’ve died and gone to heaven? Every time someone touches my head, it feels like that now. It’s ecstasy. I would honestly consider re-shaving my head just to enjoy more headrubs. I am like the second, weirdly talkative dog my parents didn’t ask for, just wandering around hoping someone is going to start touching my head.

So do I recommend shaving your head? Yes. 10/10, would shave again. In a weird way, I’m incredibly thankful for the experience. I have an entirely new level of empathy for people who are visibly different now, people who suffer from disabilities or deformities or just oddities that attract attention wherever they go. I understand what it’s like to go somewhere and get stares, to wear your condition on your sleeve (or your head) and be forced to acknowledge that you can no longer hide from what’s clear to strangers and loved ones alike. The experience of being a Cancer Patient – or any other kind of visible Patient – is different for everyone, I’m sure; but as far as I’m concerned, I hope it’s made me a better person.

But for all of the wisdom, and two-minute showers, and time I’ve spent looking in the bathroom mirror pretending I’m RuPaul, I’m still looking forward to getting my real hair back.

I’m sure my blowdryer is around here somewhere.

Matters of the heart

Before I can have Tuesday’s drug cocktail, I had to get a heart scan to measure the functionality of my third-most vital organ. (The first two being my brain and my stomach, since I need my stomach to eat burritos.) This is an important part of the process, because when it comes to treating something like cancer, nothing is benign – and my chemotherapy regimen has a nasty little habit of occasionally causing heart damage. Since I plan on hanging onto this heart for another 70 years or so, it’s important that we keep tabs on how it’s handling everything.

I had a choice between a MUGA scan and an echocardiogram. The MUGA involves an intravenous radioactive injection that’s traced throughout the body using a big scanning device, while the echocardiogram is a simple ultrasound. I opted for the echo – no needles, no radioactivity, just a few minutes with a painless ultrasound wand, right? No. Wrong.

This is the second time ultrasounds have tricked me, the first being my unpleasant surprise transvaginal procedure at the fertility doc, and I’m officially OVER IT. Next time, I’m getting the MUGA.

First, the procedure takes a full hour. That’s an hour of laying on your side while an ultrasound tech jabs you in the boobs, all the while leaning their full weight onto you and rolling what feels like a dirty softball up and down your ribcage. It was extremely uncomfortable, to the point of outright pain at times.

Think we’re done there? Of course not! Since I have big ol’ fake boobies, it was tough for the tech to get a good angle to see my heart wall and measure the functionality of my cardiac muscle. In order to get a clearer picture, we needed to repeat the echo using a contrast dye. A nurse came in, fitted me with yet another IV and injected a weird, bubbly liquid into my arm. My heart lit up like a fireworks display, and I was jabbed with the giant ultrasound wand yet again – this time up under my sternum. Good times, y’all, good times.

The tech apologized profusely (and noted that my discomfort was probably because I’m so thin – I’ll take compliments wherever I can get ’em, folks!), but the funniest part to me was that she really went out of her way to try to keep my breasts covered while she was jamming this wand in between every single one of my ribs. I’m so incredibly over people seeing my boobs, it’s hard to believe. I barely even think of my body as something private anymore. It’s not mine; it belongs to the doctors. I’ve heard this sentiment expressed by other cancer survivors, and it’s probably the experience I relate to the most. I feel like a medical specimen – but even so, there’s something that fascinates me about seeing into all the hidden areas of my body, getting to see my uterus and my heart and my lymph nodes lit up on scanning machines all the time.

My mom and I often joke about my ability to detach from even the most unpleasant medical procedures and look at the proceedings with awe and curiosity. I’ve always had this weird fascination with medicine. It started when I was a kid, and we had this big red book full of medical information that my mom would bust out whenever my brother and I had a fever or a sore throat. There was no Internet (I know, there was a time before the Internet? And I was alive for it? WTF), so the Big Red Book was all we had, and I think I read it cover to cover.

When I was an adolescent, when I wasn’t watching Degrassi: The Next Generation, I’d be sitting enraptured by disgusting shows on Discovery Health like Trauma: Life in the ER. I was amazed at the punishment the human body could take. I was fascinated that from a single cell, we could become organisms full of functional organs and beating hearts and inflating lungs. When my dad’s gallbladder was removed, he asked the surgeon to take pictures for me, which was weirdly sweet of him. Not only did I receive a full set of bizarre images of my dad’s innards, I even got a little bottle full of his gallbladder stones. Sick, right? I KNOW, you guys, I know – but isn’t it amazing, the way we work? What a precarious balance this life is. Any number of things can go wrong at any second – every moment of it is precious. And yet, I still spent seven hours yesterday mainlining episodes of House of Cards of Netflix. I regret nothing.

I’m shedding

It’s happening.

Bye, hair. :(

I was sitting at my favorite coffee shop, drinking an iced latte and reading a great book my friend Forrest sent me, when I felt an itch on the back of my scalp and reached back to satisfy it. When I pulled my hand away, at least 50 short brown hairs came with it. They fluttered down over my shoulders and down my cardigan like so much confetti.

“Oh, shit,” I said aloud, causing a couple of other patrons to turn my direction.

I couldn’t help myself: I reached back and pulled out another handful. And another. It was coming in huge clumps. I’ve brushed long-haired cats that shed less than this. No matter where I tugged, I could painlessly pull out massive tufts of hair and hold them in my palm, staring down at the fearsome chemotherapy side effect I’ve dreaded since my diagnosis. There it was, my feminine comfort blanket, the hair I’ve spent so many hours blow-drying, curling, coloring, forcing into updos I found on Pinterest that never turned out like the pictures. Just laying on the floor of a coffee shop. I’m sorry, Zeli’s. I know your janitorial staff is going to be baffled by this tonight.

I immediately texted Katie Bo to let her know that It Was Happening.

Me: I feel sorry for the next person who sits in this chair. It looks like I invited my personal hair stylist in here to give me a trim while I sipped on this coffee.

KB: Don’t worry, it’ll probably be a hippy. Hippies are cool with hair.

Me: What do I do? Should I shave it? Help. HELP.

KB: The scab theory. Go home, watch some TV and pull on it compulsively. Or stay there and hand it to passersby.

Me: Maybe they’ll just assume I have a very sheddy invisible dog.

KB: Go up to the cashier and ask for a bowl of water for him.

KB: Go up to the counter and be like, “Excuse me, do you mind if I have a bowl of water for my dog Bertrando? He’s getting parched in the California heat and he’s starting to molt.”

Me: Then I’ll pull out a tuft of my hair and hand it to him as payment.

KB: “You operate on the barter system, right? I trust these strands will be enough.”

KB: Then start singing Les Miz.

Me: Honestly I don’t see a flaw in this plan.

Reeling from the realization that I was actually going to lose my hair (denial is a powerful emotion), I wandered across the street and into a TJ Maxx to see if I could find any cheap skullcaps to cover up my brand-new deformity. Unfortunately, this being winterless California, they had nothing but trendy fedoras and big, Kentucky Derby wide-brimmed sunhats. C’mon, guys! Some of us still need knit beanies even in the off-season. I am not Bruno Mars, so a fedora was out of the question, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t entertain the possibility of sporting nothing but genteel, floppy Southern hats throughout this whole ordeal, going everywhere in a dress, speaking like Paula Deen and carrying a mint julep everywhere I go. But alas. All I really wanted was a cozy cap.

Truth be told, my hair and I have always had a tumultuous relationship. When I was about 14, the whole thing exploded into a thick mass of curls so extreme, I was once featured in a before-and-after ad for the hair salon I went to. A hairdresser who blow-dried my locks straight said to me, sweat dripping down her face, “I don’t want to see you again until your wedding!” I hated my curls, and it took me years to figure out how to style them in a way that didn’t look like I’d dropped a toaster in the bath.

Whatever unknown forces caused my ‘fro, they calmed down when I was about 18. My hair settled into manageable waves that I started dying blonder and blonder until one day I looked in the mirror and realized I’d somehow gone Gwen Stefani platinum. I felt unique and sexy that way, so kept it blonde through most of college, before dying it back to brown just before graduation. And that’s how it stayed for the last few years – long, brown, often curled, sometimes straight, but always there for me, ready for a quick twirl to alleviate boredom or an alluring toss to attract the attention of some cute guy.

We may have had our differences, hair, but I never wanted us to part this way. I’ll miss you.

Wigs ‘n’ things

Cancer has taught me a lot about myself, including this: Veganism isn’t for me.

I wasn’t allowed to eat dairy while I was on a special antibiotic following my egg retrieval procedure, and it was surprisingly difficult. Did you know that basically everything awesome has dairy in it? I even like to put dairy where it doesn’t belong in order to make mediocre things into fantastic things (Philadelphia rolls, anyone?). Fortunately, I took my last dose of doxycycline yesterday, and so far today I’ve had a smoothie, some Greek yogurt, some kale dip and some gorgonzola cheese crumbles that I literally ate out of the tub with a spoon. Sorry I’m not sorry.

In spite of my dairy binge, I was finally able to button my pants today! I’ve been loafing around in sweats and yoga pants since Monday to accomodate my post-egg retrieval bloat, which had me feeling like I would need to make a trip to A Pea in the Pod any day now even though I didn’t go through with the whole impregnation part of the IVF cycle. It’s been four days now and I’d say I’m about 85% of the way back to feeling normal, which puts me right on track with all the fertility preservation/egg donor blogs I obsessively perused when I was preparing for this.

In fact, I was feeling good enough on Wednesday to go wig shopping – a red letter day in Cancerland!

I’ve been both awaiting and dreading this day since my diagnosis. I was feeling apprehensive, but my friend Jasmine quickly quelled my fears. “Wearing other people’s hair is awesome,” she told me. “I’m wearing someone else’s hair on top of my hair right now!”

I’ve always felt that wig shopping could go one of two ways. Option A: fun day of dress-up, or Option B: traumatizing dress rehearsal for impending hideousness. In the end, it fell somewhere on the continuum – not quite a carefree day of trying on cool costumes, but also not a miserable, pitiful excuse for trying to hide an obvious deformity like being a bald girl in her mid-20s.

The woman running the shop was fantastic. She confided that she wears a wig every single day, just for convenience, which gave me some confidence that maybe it won’t be super duper obvious that I’m actually bald underneath my hairpiece. She also didn’t react at all when I told her about my diagnosis, which was refreshing, except to offer to shave my head for me. This being Hollywood, this woman’s business is probably 50% cancer patients and 50% drag queens, so I guess she’s used to everything.

I had a good time trying on a variety of wigs in all kinds of lengths and colors, but I ended up selecting a medium-length, brunette number that looks almost identical to my real hair. I opted for it in two styles, too – a straight one that looks like my hair after I torture it with a flatiron, and a wavy one that looks just like my natural style. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that I was most comfortable looking in the mirror and seeing my face surrounded by the same long brown hair I’ve always had instead of a giant blonde bouffant or some red hair poking out from underneath a baseball cap or something.

At the wig shop I was also introduced to, and subsequently decided to purchase after about .5 seconds, a magnificent invention called “bangs on a headband.” Basically, it’s exactly what it sounds like: a soft, comfy headband with faux bangs attached. You can wear it underneath a beanie or a hat in order to make yourself look slightly less like a hairless alien, without the heat and discomfort wigs can sometimes cause when worn frequently. Perfect for wanting something to throw on that will keep people from staring at you at the grocery store (or in my case, Mexican restaurant), but won’t require any styling or upkeep. Bonus, it’ll also help camouflage how weird I’ll look if my eyebrows fall out.

I’m surprised by how pretty and normal I feel in my wigs. I can pull them back into buns and ponytails, dress them up with clips and headbands and basically treat them like my own hair. Plus, I can do a better job styling them because I can do braids and updos on a styrofoam head instead of having to crane my neck awkwardly to look in the mirror like I do when I inevitably mess up a French braid attempt on my own locks. You’ll see them on this blog eventually, when I’m ready to let them make their debut. For now, I’m still enjoying my pixie cut.

Too bad said pixie cut has an expiration date, because my oncologist and I finally set a schedule for my chemotherapy. It will begin on Tuesday, February 26, so mark your calendars! I may be nauseated on the day of or day after the infusion, but the meds should help prevent that. Then, in terms of aches and fatigue, I should feel worst on days 3-6, then steadily improve until day 21, when we’ll repeat the whole awesome cycle. Gordie’s returning to LA on day 4, so he may be here for a few days while I’m feeling crappy, but hopefully he won’t just be my caretaker – I have plenty of fun things planned for us.

Today I met some of the nurses at the infusion center and picked up my pre-med prescriptions, so I guess this is actually happening. The whole thing kind of reminds me of the time my friend Hayley forced me to ride the Tower of Terror at Disneyland. Time to just close my eyes, put on my safety gear/harnesses (which, in this case, are more mental than physical – although I guess the 5,000 drugs they’re prepping for me right now at CVS are kind of physical), try not to let a bunch of brave little kids show me up, and see if I can’t enjoy myself a little bit, one way or another.

The hair thing

Alright, you knew it was coming: I have to talk about my hair.

Objectively, the hair thing just seems so…trivial. I mean, if a genie came up to you and said, “[Your name,] I’m going to let you live a long, healthy life – provided that you go six months completely and utterly hairless. If you refuse, there’s a 30% chance you’ll die.” You’d obviously take the half a year of baldness, right? I mean, I totally would. Wouldn’t I?

Also, what kind of asshole genie would ask that?

But subjectively, when B-Day (that’s Baldness Day) starts to sneak up on you, it becomes this big, distracting deal. I was tired of dealing with the stress of that when I really needed to be focusing on the fact that while yes, chemotherapy will make me look temporarily like an alien, it’ll also be saving my life. So I made a decision that I was going to take charge of the hair situation. And then I hemmed and hawed about it for a while.

As a woman with cancer, there’s just no getting around the hair thing. As a guy, maybe you can pull it off. Maybe you joined the Marines or you’re taking control of your premature balding. But as a woman, owning the baldness thing takes a whole lot of swag – swag, I am sorry to say, I don’t possess. I dress more or less like a 20-something Liz Lemon (blazers and cardigans FOR DAYSSSS), and the most adventuresome hairstyle I ever had was the full, blunt bangs my mom cut me with manicure scissors when I was 4. I’ve spent all of my teen and young adult years with hair cascading in waves down to at least my shoulders, in varying shades of blonde and brown. I barely even ever wore it in a ponytail. And I’m supposed to jump from that to bald?

Nuh uh, my friends. I need a transitional phase. I need something to help me adjust.

See, when you don’t have any hair, all that’s left is your face. You can’t curl your hair nicely and hope it’ll distract from the zit on your chin. You can’t sweep your bangs down over your eyes to hide the fact that you haven’t tweezed your eyebrows in weeks. Without hair, your face is the main attraction. You’re a walking marquee sign proclaiming the latest features: CHECK OUT MY NOSE. DO I HAVE ANY PIMPLES? I MIGHT KINDA HAVE A UNIBROW. I DIDN’T PUT ON EYELINER TODAY!

I happen to be of the opinion that cancer has taken enough from me, especially when it comes to my femininity. It took my breasts (although my plastic surgeon gave me better ones to replace them, if I’m being honest). It may take my fertility (although the fertility doc says we’ll be getting 12-15 eggies in the freezer by Monday). So if it’s going to take my hair, it’s going to do it on my terms.

I’ve been determined to go ahead with this pre-chemo cut since my diagnosis because it’s basically my hair’s way of saying, “You can’t fire me, I quit!” But I have to admit that the whole ordeal was a lot less frightening because my bold, beautiful friend Katie Bo went before me. Without telling me, she cut her own long, dark, voluminous hair into a pixie and donated the rest to a cancer charity. (I’m secretly hoping I’ll get the resulting wig because her hair is far more beautiful than mine ever was.) Anyway, because she looked so chic, stylish and feminine in her pixie, I was excited instead of filled with dread when I walked into the salon.

I told my hairdresser the situation and warned her that I might burst into tears at any moment during the cut. “I promise it’s not because you’re doing a bad job,” I added.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m going to make you adorable.”

How’d she do?

BeforeAfter

Truthfully, the experience was far less traumatic than I was expecting it to be. There were no tears, but plenty of laughter. And because it was a laid-back Friday afternoon in the salon, lots of the hairdressers came over to play with my newly shorn locks, apply product and show me all kinds of styles. I briefly sported a fauxhawk, which actually looked cute, if I do say so myself, and may be recreated on a day when I’m feeling particularly bold.

I thought I’d leave the salon in tears, hating my pixie cut. Instead, I honestly love it. It’s a pity that it’ll all fall out by mid-March.

In sickness and in health

That’s what they ask you to promise, in marriage – to stand by one another, in sickness and in health. I’ve heard those vows over and over again, in movies and TV, and in life, especially now that so many of my friends are starting to say their “I do”s. Even so, I don’t think the enormity of that promise hit me until suddenly, I was in sickness.

I’m not married, but I am happily in love with my boyfriend, Gordie, who gets mentioned on this blog from time to time.

Gordie is a private man, and he’s asked me to largely keep our relationship off this blog. I’ve done my best to abide by his wishes, but on Valentine’s Day, I just can’t help myself. He has been my rock through all of this, never wavering for one second in his desire to stand by my side no matter what. When he came to visit after my surgery, he helped me get in and out of the shower, shampooing my hair with that rough, I-have-no-idea-what-I’m-doing rhythm that guys sometimes have when they’re trying to be gentle but get the damn job done. He politely avoided remarking that I had more armpit hair than him, and wasn’t even mad when I woke him up at 3am to scratch my back somewhere I couldn’t reach…every single night. He didn’t flinch at the sight of my post-surgery body, and assured me over and over again that while he had found my original configuration beautiful, he was sure the new parts would look just as nice. He let me cry, made me laugh, told me to snap out of it when I started to swirl into The Dark Place and kept me busy enough that I didn’t have time to watch even one episode of Law & Order: SVU.

He didn’t even run straight for the fire escape when I asked him to come with me to the fertility doctor. He sat calmly in the doctor’s office with me and took in a bunch of diagrams of vaginas and sperm like an adult. Which, really, is more than I can say for myself. I still laugh at the absurdity of it every time I pinch up a section of thigh fat and inject it with follicle stimulating hormone purified from human urine. By the way, my ovaries feel like two pineapples that took a wrong turn at the Dole factory and ended up lost in my abdominal cavity, but more on that tomorrow.

Sitting across the table from Gordie the other week at a local restaurant, drinking my first beer since surgery and discussing which oncologist would be least likely to let me die on their watch, I looked into his calm, brown eyes and thought about how lucky I am to have someone I love with me through this ordeal.

I have a lot of people to thank for that, if I’m being honest. Yes, I want to thank myself for spotting him across the office all that time ago and letting him call me Melissa for a while because I just thought he was cute and wanted him to like me. I’d also like to thank Jaeger and Red Bull for coming together and creating the concoction that facilitated our first kiss, standing in the rain outside of McFadden’s at 2 in the morning at the Haymarket T stop after a fantastic first date and drinks. I’d like to thank him for putting up with me every single day, still taking me out on dates and always calling when he says he will. I want to thank American Airlines and JetBlue and US Airways, who have shuttled us to one another’s apartments over and over and over again after I left for graduate school and who now, while I’m stuck 3,000 miles away in treatment, continue to milk us out of every penny we’ve got.

But most of all, I want to thank my parents, who have provided a shining example of love, kindness and devotion for all 25 years of my life.

Was this post totally cheesy? Maybe. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that it’s Valentine’s Day, or that I have 10 times the normal concentration of estrogen floating around in my system so I spent half of my day crying at dog food commercials. Who knows? So happy Valentine’s Day to all of you!

Except for you, cancer. F–k you.