In honor of the closing days of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I thought I might say a few words about the whole “being bald” thing.
When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, the very first thing I thought of was not “will I die” but “will I lose my hair”. I do not delude myself into thinking that this makes me in any way uniquely vain or, for that matter, unique in any way. I believe that this is where most women (and maybe men?) reflexively “go to”, rather than the more dire thoughts of pain, debilitation and death.
Not all therapies for cancer inevitably lead to baldness. However, nearly all therapies for early stage breast cancer (which is to say, non-metastatic disease) cause total hair loss (metastatic disease is often treated with hormone therapy or biologically targeted therapy before turning to the chemo big guns because, among other things, when cancer is detectable in the organs, it is easier to determine its responsiveness to these less debilitating therapies such that if the cancer does not quickly respond, then the bigger guns can be brought out; this is a little-known “benefit” of metastatic cancer). So, essentially, it was non-negotiable. I had breast cancer, I was going to lose my hair, and it was going to happen on a specific day, namely day 15 after my first treatment. On that day, my long hair would simply detach from my scalp, piece by piece for about five minutes and then in huge clumps.
I remember the feeling of pulling the clumps of hair from my head as something akin to pulling the little, sharp, hair-like fibers out of the bowl of an artichoke bottom. My scalp tingled and ached, and pulling out clumps of hair gave me some measure of relief. It actually felt kind of satisfying, kind of good.
When I had thinned my hair down to about half of its thickness (I have very thick hair), I realized that I could actually have some fun before I went totally Kojak. And so, I wielded a pair of scissors and went from Lauren to Anna Wintour to Madonna (circa 1983) before it became clear that my hair wasn’t just falling out: it was dead. The follicles had shut down production, and whatever “hair prana” that flowed therefrom to make my hair look vibrant and lush up until that point in time was now gone. Poof. No life force to be seen. And without life force, my hair looked scary and sick.
That is when I brought out my very first wig. I had purchased it at Bits and Pieces in Columbus Circle before I began chemo, while I was still recovering from my double mastectomy and (unbeknownst to me, doomed) reconstruction. My friend Kim had gone with me. The goal was to find a wig that looked like my hair, only better. And what we settled on was really quite good. It was a strawberry blonde (which was my haircolor at the time), long layered cut, with bangs that I could brush to the side. I took it home that day, but I was to bring it back after my hair fell out for a “fitting”. Since it was late on a Friday afternoon when I took scissors to my dead hair, there was no way to get my wig fit before I was seen in public. And I had plans that night, as I did many a night back then when all I wanted to do was go out so that I wouldn’t have to look within.
With the wig kind of slipping around on my head, I had no choice but to wear a hat in order to hold it all together. I had chosen a sky-blue leather newsboy cap for just this possibility. And I debuted it that night at the Lenox Room on Third Avenue in the 70’s. I am not afraid to say that I looked totally chic. At that point, my face had not yet taken on that distinctive chemo pallor, where the eyelids turn reddish and the undereye circles turn blueish, and there’s a boniness where there should be flesh and a bloatedness where there should be sculpture. At this point, I actually looked quite good. The steroids they give you with your chemo cocktail can make your skin look quite dewy and young, can plump up the apples in your cheeks. Not to mention how they make you feel: wired, almost manic.
Okay, much as I would like to continue this, Lewis the Bagle is crying desperately to go out, and I must take him. So I must continue this later.