Taking My Hat Off

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The truth is, I baby-stepped into it.

First, my sis and I went to see the latest Harry Potter installment in the theater, then we met friends at Sweet Tomatoes (aka Souplantation) for an early dinner. Next, it was running errands and hanging out at my favorite coffee shop, Pacific Bay, and finally, work on Sunday (forgive me, Lord).

By yesterday afternoon, though, after six months of covering my head, I was finally comfortable without a hat, scarf of wig.

The thing they don’t tell you about chemo is that not all of your hair falls out. You kind of look like a nuclear fallout victim, because hair grows in cycles, and it falls out in cycles. You end up with like, two hundred or so sad little hairs poking out of your scalp, six or seven sad little eyelashes hanging onto your lids for dear life, three or four eyebrow hairs askew above them. I think women going through chemo shave their heads for the same reason men shave theirs – because it just looks better without any hair at all.

It was hard watching it grow back in, but not as hard as watching it all fall out. When I lost my hair, the first week of 2009, it was heartbreaking. I mean, I had like, Julia Roberts hair – long, brown, thick, gorgeous. I could wear it curly or straight, and even though I had cut it in anticipation of it falling out, when it finally did, I was horrified. I cried every time I took a shower, every time I looked in the mirror. I couldn’t even hold it together during my last haircut, and made the hairdresser cry (albeit, notintentionally).

It’s not like it all falls out at once, either. It’s more like, when you brush a dog or a cat, and tons of hair comes off in the brush, only, you can see where it’s come off your head, and it just gets thinner and thinner every day. Every time you take a shower and run your hands through your hair, there’s a toupee-sized clump in the drain. Every time you wake up, there’s hair all over your pillow and shirt. You scratch your head under your hat, and there’s hair on your hand when you pull it away, or a clump sitting on your shoulder that you don’t even know about. I lost most of it in a week, and still went through a whole lint roller in just under a month. I tried to reassure myself that it was just temporary, but somehow losing my hair made cancer real, even more real than surgery or chemo. Suddenly, I really did look like a cancer patient.

I kept my eyelashes and eyebrows through most of Taxol, and only lost them halfway through – about two months before chemo was over. Now I really looked freaky. I felt like one of those vampire extras from I Am Legend – dark bags under my eyes, patchy hair, no facial hair. I never wanted to go outside, because even when I felt good, I looked sick. Even my goddaughter stared at me strangely – this sweet child I had known and loved for 6 years, admitted, “It’s kind of weird,” when I asked her what she thought of my “new look.” I started spending more and more time holing up at home, in my pajamas, in front of my computer. Outfits had to be coordinated with baseball caps (I hardly ever wore my wigs because I was afraid they would fall off, or they would make my head sweat as summer kicked in). It was just easier to never go outside. I was becoming a victim of my own reluctance to share my illness with the world.

They say that when the student is ready, the teacher arrives. My sister dragged me to a seminar in Las Vegas to see “The World’s Greatest Hypnotist” who was now a motivational speaker with an MLM pitch. It was only two days, but, as always, clothes had to carefully be coordinated to go with hats, makeup had to be applied to warm up my chemo pallor and nearly invisible eyes. It was the first time in months I had been with a group of strangers who didn’t know my story, and I felt like Dolly Parton, having to put on her face to greet the public.

I asked the speaker, in the Q&A, “How can I forgive myself for the mistakes I’ve made?” and he responded with encouragement and awareness, making me see how I was punishing myself for, essentially, not being psychic. Hindsight is always 20/20, yet we blame ourselves all the time for not being able to prevent disaster. I realized the silliness and futility of wanting my situation to be different, and the necessity of me moving forward in it as positively as I could, with what I had. I couldn’t change that I had cancer, or lost my hair, or all the dreams I had for the future. What I could do, though, was dream a new dream, that started where I was already, and do it without beating myself up anymore.

I took a good, long, forgiving look in the mirror, and realized that there must be other women out there, feeling self-conscious about their appearance, wanting to hole up until it was “all over,” and, as the speaker┬ásuggested, thought of how I could help them in their struggles. I saw the danger in my own reclusiveness – by separating myself from society, I was fighting alone. I remembered Rowena’s telling me to “call in the troops,” to fight my cancer, and knew that I was doing exactly the opposite – instead of calling in for reinforcements, I was in denial about the seriousness of the battle I was facing. It was time I reached out.

The YouTube videos started, initially, as an idea I had to be more comfortable with the way I looked. I was so, SO scared, during my cancer fight, to let other people see me weak, ugly, unsure of myself, or incompetent. I was always the rock and the resident genius. It was enourmously challenging to admit I was struggling. History┬áteaches that you must confront your fears, or they will always hold you back from greatness. I thought, “if I can let the people who love me see me vulnerable, perhaps I will finally be okay with it, and will not spend the rest of the time I’ve got left on this earth in fear of people thinking I can’t handle a challenge.” Many of my friends admitted later that they wondered how I was holding up, and feared I was putting on a brave face (as I always did), while being in denial. I told myself, “Okay, I’ll record a little makeup tutorial for women in chemo, and I’ll just let everyone see what I look like under all that makeup, and they’ll see it’s still me, and the friends who are freaked out will fall away, and the friends who still love me will stay, and that will be that.” In the process, hopefully I would inspire a few cancer-driven agoraphobes to put on some mascara and rejoin the world.

The beauty was, no one fell away. All my friends voiced their encouragement, support, and sometimes amazement, over my videos, and I felt so blessed to have a veritable army of supporters around me, urging me on.

I made video after video, and got a real job. I chose a sales position in a healthy, fitness-focused environment, where I would interact with strangers every day, helping them get fit, or equip themselves for athletic journeys. It allowed me to draw on my history and experiences, and gave me something to do to feel useful every day, instead of feeling like a hopeless cancer mercy case, sitting at home waiting for somone to e-mail her with something to pay the rent. The money was waaay less than I was used to, but the environment more than made up for it. I kept uploading videos and people kept watching them, commenting and sending me encouragement. Every time I felt down or depressed, inevitably someone would post a response to one of my tutorials encouraging me to keep up the fight, and thanking me for my inspirational messages.

Finally, my eyelashes started growing back! It started as one dark little stubbie a week after chemo (my sister blames the Xango she made me drink when it ended; I say my body was just reeeeaaally glad to be drug-free again). Then there was another stubbie, and pretty soon, I didn’t have to wear eyeliner every day anymore. My hair was growing in too, and even though it bore a curious resemblence to Willian Shatner’s, I celebrated every new little strand that came in. I joined an awesome boot camp early in the mornings, and saw my running times improve. I told myself everything was coming back; everything was getting better. With each new gain in health, I celebrated, reminding myself I was coming back.

And so it was that I went to my second or third day of radiotherapy and sat next to Susan, a woman in my CA support group, who was totally bald – hatless and scarfless, going about her business. I looked at her and thought, “Why am I so self-conscious about my head when here she is, walking around bald without thinking twice?” I realized I was being ridiculous, and decided right then to spend the weekend easing myself into a hat-free life.

Sure, when we went to Sweet Tomatoes, a lot of little kids gawked. My friend’s daughter, Molly, more than made up for it. When they came in, she ran up to me, surprised and smiling, and shouted, “April!!” wrapping me in the best kid’s hug ever. It was like I was finally letting her see me, without the hat, without the eyeliner, and she was happy as only a four year-old can be. I said, “Do you like my hair?” and she nodded, smiling shyly. Two days later, I was at work, equally shy and still nervous about my monk-like hairdo, discussing my comfort level with a hatless existence, when my supervisor (who rides for Team In Training) said, “You look adorable. It’s a celebration of life!”

A celebration of life. Indeed. :)