Although still only a possibility, it became my reality - I lost all my hair due to chemotherapy. It started with my scalp feeling achy, then the hairs on the pillow. After a couple of showers, each time I ran my fingers through my hair, they came out in large patches. It still didn’t hit me until I looked in the mirror. I was alone in our condo prepping for our upcoming wedding and my fiancé, Bruce was hiking with his son. When he came home, my head was down on our office desk and I was in tears.
Bruce noticed the difference almost immediately. He had only been gone a few hours and there were patches of baldness all over my head. I asked him to shave the rest off. He gave me a little time to gather myself and as I stood in the bathtub, he buzzed away. I cried like I’ve never cried before. It was totally uncontrollable. When it was all said and done, I looked at myself in the mirror once again and completely lost it. Bruce held me tight, said nothing, and supplied endless amounts of kleenex.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my hair since the very first moment I knew I needed chemotherapy. Not everyone loses their hair with chemo because not all chemo medicines work the same. When I had my first chemo treatment a year ago, I didn’t lose my hair, but I was practically an invalid from neuropathy and foot sores.
I’ve talked to fellow cancer friends and let me tell you that we really hate when people say:
Don’t worry, it's just hair. It’ll come back
Now you have one less thing to worry about, that’s good, right?
Many cancer patients go through chemotherapy several times in their lifetime. Our hair loss is not about vanity and these seemingly well-meaning comments come off incredibly trite, uncompassionate, and dismissive of our grief.
For us, losing our hair is yet another uncontrollable thing along with nearly shitting in our pants, vomiting at the drop of a hat, losing ridiculous amounts of weight, and during a pandemic, unable to have any other sense of normalcy.
You're weak, you're under ridiculous amounts of stress, and oh yeah...now you’re bald!!
Even a non-cancer friend said:
Fuck that noise of "it'll grow back" - Loss is loss. Grief is grief. Take all the time you need to honor your body and honor your spirit and feel your feelings.
Hair Is Sacred
Many cultures have regarded hair as immensely sacred. There are judgements and inferences about the length of hair, type of hair, and hairstyles - such as religious and political beliefs, sexual orientation, and socio-economic status, to name a few. Even Samson’s hair (portrayed in the Biblical book of Judges) was a symbol of great power. The Nazi’s during WWII would dehumanize the Jews by shaving their hair. On the contrary, there are also cultures whose shaved heads are of huge significance and rites of passage.
Hair is sacred.
Hair is an appendage of our skin that changes several times throughout our lifespan. It’s a multi layered expression of us. Each individual with its own uniqueness. It literally records what we eat, what we feel, our hormone levels, our traumas, and our resilience. It’s part of our personality and identity.
About ten years ago, I decided to stop highlighting my hair if only to let my natural jet black hair grow out once again. I just wanted to be my true natural self. As I’ve aged, I’ve learned to embrace my physical self so much more, but I never thought cancer would interrupt that process in such a cruel way.
Losing my hair reminds me of my inevitable death.
Mourn, Grieve, And Give It Back
After some mourning, two Native Tribal Elder friends encouraged me to return my hair to the earth, tree, or water - to let the animals, like the birds, use my hair for their nests.
What an extraordinary, yet simple idea - but it’s much more than that. Every fiber of our physical body is part of the earth - including our hair. We damage ourselves in mind, body, and spirit that we continually disconnect ourselves from the earth.
Whatever your theological beliefs, there is truth to "Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust," - Book of Common Prayer.
Why not let the new life have what is no longer mine?
After a few days of reflecting on this, I asked Bruce and my Man-of-Honor and Bigfoot Bestie, Clay if we could spend time together out near the ocean to let go of my hair. I put on some makeup and covered my head in a bandanna and fedora to stay warm. We drove out to one of my favorite spots, Fort Ebey State Park. We walked alongside the bluffs and l looked for good places to leave my hair. I found a tree that had a few deep holes, perhaps a squirrel hole or bird nest? I wasn’t sure, but I knew the animals would find what they needed.
I took my hair out of a plastic bag and held it in my hands for a while. My hair was very dry and lacking the beautiful sheen I was so proud of. In short, my hair was dying.
I put patches of my hair in the tree and cried. It was a surreal experience. A strange sensation came over me - a tingling - as if my scalp was grieving with me. I quietly gave my gratitude to Mother Earth for the simple act of just being in the moment and completely present.
It was a cold, crisp day and we walked through the forest reflecting and conversing on life. I found other places to leave my hair, but I didn’t cry anymore. We ended our day with food, laughs, and drinks. I really needed to let my hair down (no pun intended).
At the end of our day, Clay gifted me a meditating Sasquatch. Is it any wonder why he's my Bigfoot Bestie?
It was a good day.