Friday, February 8, 2013

V. Hair

When it comes to losing one's hair, there is a huge difference between theoretical and actual - and this may sound totally sexist, but I think it's much worse if you're a woman. (Except maybe if you're Ozzy Osbourne or Russell Brand.)

Chemotherapy = hair loss. We all know this, right? But I sailed through my first two treatments with very little nausea and almost no other side effects, so to an outside observer I didn't "look" like someone with cancer. Then a few days after my second treatment, having not lost a single strand of hair, I pulled on the back of my head as a little experiment. I was shocked to see that several strands came out quite easily.

When I reported this new development to my family, they were unperturbed; after all, except for my relatively new short haircut, I looked pretty much the same. Then one night, Henry (my 13-year-old) and I were sitting on the couch watching TV. He said, "So Mom, does your hair just come out when you pull it?" He was curious - exactly how hard do you have to pull? - and asked if he could try. I figured he'd yank a strand or two, so I shrugged and said sure. Suddenly, he was holding dozens of my hairs - I'd describe it as somewhere between a bouquet and a chunk.

I tried not to act freaked out - after all, this was inevitable, we may as well not pathologize the process, right? - but I was. It was horrifying.

Since then (and having now undergone three treatments so far), I have cried many, many tears over the loss of my hair. Usually I'd wait until I was in the presence of my husband, Chris, to completely fall apart; but my friends Sarah and Lisa have also witnessed my sad little breakdowns.

Chris tried to console me by pointing out that I have had almost no side effects and very little nausea. A long marriage is great in many ways, but especially this one: you don't need to use a whole lot of words to explain yourself. In this case, I simply looked at Chris and what he read in my eyes conveyed his mistake immediately. (Keep this in mind, guys: rule one is simply validate your wife's feelings.) He got it: I would rather throw up for sixteen weeks straight than lose my hair.

Sometimes I feel like I'm behaving in an infantile way, whining about my hair. After all, I have very treatable cancer, caught early, I will be fine. My hair will grow back. There are people in much, much worse circumstances than me. I haven't thrown up once. I'm still doing Bikram yoga, for god's sake. How much complaining am I really due?

But I can't get around it: losing my hair is depressing. I feel unattractive. I'm wearing beanie hats now all the time - otherwise my head feels cold - and anytime I take one off or switch hats, there are dozens of hairs in it. Hair is everywhere: in my bathroom sink, on the floor, and when I wash my hair (which I do purposely rarely) it clogs up the drain. It's disgusting, and I'm appalled that my own body is doing this, purging my head of hair.

Henry made the joke that eventually I'm going to look like Gollum from "The Hobbit," with just two or three strands of hair plastered to my otherwise-bald scalp. It's funny, I'll admit.

When I'm feeling philosophical, I think about what this means for me as a woman and why it's so hard. It goes to society's ideals of beauty, certainly, for women; our femininity and more basically, our femaleness, are so tied into things like hair. It is difficult (if not impossible) to feel pretty when you are a (soon-to-be) bald woman. But as my friend Jill said, another way to think about it is this: the hair I'm losing now is my "cancer hair." This is bad hair, poisoned hair, and I'm shedding it to make room for new, healthy, cancer-free hair. Not a bad way to think of it.

One more weird thing: I'm having a Pavlovian response, but instead of bells and salivating, I have hair loss and nausea. When I look at myself hatless in the mirror, or when I'm cleaning hair out of a beanie, it literally makes me feel queasy. The very sight of myself or my lost hair makes me sick. Calling Dr. Pavlov...

That's probably enough whining for one column. The bottom line is: I'm doing well. Chemo has not (yet) kicked my ass physically, I feel strong and capable. Emotionally, I am supported in every way possible. I will not only survive this, but my (and my oncologist's) plan is to beat this cancer into submission, to poison and shame it so it dare not show its face in my life ever again. And by the time summer rolls into my beautiful northern California town, my hair will already be growing back. I may even have progressed by then from Gollum to Richard Simmons.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

IV. Chemo Begins, with a Bonus: Bronchitis

The Kindness of Strangers and Others

I cut my hair. And then I cut it again. I can't even remember the last time I wore my hair short - I don't particularly like it short, but I know it's going to fall out within weeks, so I wanted to feel some modicum of control over the process. (Or the illusion of control, anyway.) My hair stylist, Kara, cut my hair for free, a gesture that brought me to the verge of tears, as so many things do these days. She has even offered to come to my house to do the "final deed," i.e. if I decide to cut it all off before it falls out on its own.

Part of it, too, is getting my boys used to my new look; I've taken to wearing beanies around the house so that when the hair goes, it will be less of a shock for them. My goal is to grow it long again when all of this is over; and I figure I will have earned the right to say, "Fuck the fact that I'm over 50 - if I want long hair, I get to have it."

The innumerable kindnesses of those around me never cease to amaze. My surgery was a little over a month ago. I woke in the recovery room to the face of a beautiful nurse, herself bald from recently-completed chemo, also a breast cancer survivor. This nurse, Jimette, stayed by my side the entire day - a day which was made much longer by the fact that I developed a hematoma (blood pooling in the surgical area) and had to go back into the OR for a second procedure. When I woke up the second time, Jimette was there again. Although I was loopy as hell, we did talk a lot about "our" disease and her experience with it. The next day, when I was recovering in my lovely private room with a view of Mount Tamalpais (really, you gotta love Marin County), I had a phone call on my room phone. It was Jimette, just checking in.

I sent Jimette a thank-you note care of the hospital shortly after I went home; I wanted her to know how much her being there had meant to me, and that I felt she was somehow fated to be my recovery nurse. A few days later, I received a long note in the mail from her, giving me all her phone numbers and encouraging me to call her anytime. She said: "I truly believe I was put there that day to help you and also believe you were there for me as I still am going through my journey... People come into our lives at different times and for long periods & short periods but all for a reason."

Yet another example: my oncology nurse, Nicole, who ushered me and Chris through our "Chemo 101" class and who will be there with me for most of my chemo sessions. Her husband is a cancer survivor; in fact, she said his experience was what drew her to work in oncology. Like my surgeon, Leah Kelley, Nicole is an incredibly warm and affectionate person. When I had my inevitable breakdown in Chemo 101 - of course, it was the whole hair loss thing that set me off, as it always does - Nicole took me into her arms without a thought.

I had my first chemo session last week and - except for the fact that I had somehow contracted bronchitis a few days before, so they had to put me and Chris in an "isolation" room - everything went without incident. If you discount the coughing and hacking due to the bronchitis and a very very slight level of nausea the first couple of days after the treatment, I feel pretty good. My bloodwork from yesterday (one week post-chemo) was, according to the nurse on the phone, "great." In fact, she said, "You must be some kind of overachiever!" Ah, little did she know: I come from a long line of them. Apparently it really is in my blood.