After the shock of my leukemia diagnosis wore off a little, I asked my oncologist “Will I lose my hair?" Of course, I knew the answer, but I was hoping that I would be an anointed outlier and would keep the hair that had taken me close to a lifetime to love. Surely, she had known of a few patients who had dodged that bullet?
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Like many women (and maybe some men too) I never really liked my hair – until I finally figured it out in my late forties. With just the right long layers, cut a bit below chin length, the right product, henna, and air drying, never blow drying, it waved up just enough to look kind of cute. I actually started getting compliments on it - what a revelation! So what if it took me until middle age to make friends with my hair? But then the specter of chemo came along, threatening my short-lived love affair with my locks.
“No,” Dr. Rangaraju said, “no one keeps their hair with this chemo regimen." I knew it would grow back but would it grow back the same? According to Dr. R, not always. She told me about one patient who had curly hair before chemo and it grew back straight. And thus, in addition to all the horrors that awaited me, a new terrifying vision entered my imagination: a post chemo me with straight hair. Don’t get me wrong – straight hair is beautiful – just not on me. When I was in first grade I would stare at the girl who sat in the desk in front of me. I wanted her straight, smooth hair that stretched all the way down her back. I would daydream about how wonderful it would be to have hair like that. But my mom always had my hair cut short, a “pixie” cut. I envied my long-haired classmates. As an adult, I realized that straight hair looks awful on me. With my sharp Roman nose and narrow face, I look like Jared Leto without the facial hair. If you need proof, just look at this photo:
Horrified? You should be. This never-before-seen-in-public photo is me many years ago when I was acting in an industrial film for a bank. The cute, young, perky straight-haired blond woman who was doing our hair and makeup took one look at me and got out her flat iron. I told her that my hair looks really bad straightened but that didn’t stop her. She said, “When I’m done with you, your boyfriend is going to want to take you out to dinner to show you off!” As she struggled to get my hair just right, she remarked “Your hair is so flat!” Well yeah, I thought, maybe it’s because you’re attacking it with a flat iron! There were no mirrors in the room where she was working on me and when she was done, I was eager to see how beautiful I looked with a professional doing my hair and makeup. I walked into the bathroom and looked in the mirror. I was mortified. I took this selfie and texted it to Mark, asking him if he wanted to take me out to dinner that night. He texted me back “Why don’t we eat in tonight? I’ll cook something." Who could blame him? I looked like the Kardashian they keep tucked away in the attic. So, you can understand why, years later, I was worried about what my hair would like when it grew back.
My hair did fall out about a week after my first chemo. Some women going through chemo put makeup on and look beautiful, bald and fierce. I looked like the love child of Darth Vader and Voldemort. I didn’t bother with makeup or wigs. I donned cotton baseball caps and some jaunty flannel cloche hats that were soft and comforting. And I let it go.
My hair did grow back of course. It started with an inauspicious stubble that grew slowly. And then it came back with a vengeance, growing higher and higher with each passing day. And boy was it curly. But instead of growing downward, framing my face in lovely ringlets, it just kept getting taller. On a FaceTime call with my family, my nephew, who is a huge Bob Dylan fan, exclaimed with glee “Auntie Beth, you have Bob Dylan hair!” Despite pleasing my nephew, I feared that it would just keep growing upward.
Finally, it reversed direction and started growing down below my ears. It was thicker, curlier, and darker than before. I loved it. When I looked in the mirror, I started seeing myself again, my old self before illness and the long brutal treatment that beat my body into submission and then remission.
While my resemblance to Bob Dylan is fading, my body still betrays me daily. The physical therapy regimen to which I have consigned and resigned myself is tedious and tiring. My progress is slow, and I sometimes feel weary of it all. But then I think about my hair, and I feel a bit better. It’s a superficial solace, I know. As Bob Dylan wrote "Well, the emptiness is endless, cold as the clay. You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way." He's probably right. But at least I have my hair back.
Beth Kitchin PhD RDN