Last week, my hair started abandoning me.
I've had, for my entire life, a phenomenal head of hair. As a child, it was corn silk-blonde, falling like a mop over my forehead, exactly the thing to illicit compliments from strangers at malls and public pools. As an adult, it darkened to a coffee brown: thick and soft. It was the only thing about myself that I never criticized, the only thing I was always pleased about when I looked in the mirror.
Until last week, when it began to come out in clumps everywhere I went. My hair, which comforted me even at my lowest, was abandoning me and all I could do was watch.
The science of chemo-related hair loss is remarkably simple. Chemotherapy targets rapidly-growing cells, like cancer, in your body. As it does this, it takes out all of the body's rapidly-growing cells like white blood cells (causing a heightened risk of infection), intestinal cells (nausea) and hair follicles (hair loss).
The internal effects of chemo are pretty unsettling. For me, the external ones have felt even worse. After a second round of chemo last week there is no denying that I look like a sick person. I am thin, pale and bald. There are bags under my eyes that suggest I've not slept in weeks (which I haven't) and joint pain gives me a limp that makes my nightly walks around the apartment look more like a haunting.
It might be vanity, but: Accepting that I am a person who has cancer is not so hard as accepting that I look like a person who has cancer.
My second round of chemo was far less dramatic than my first. It was done as an outpatient procedure, meaning that, rather than spending a week in the hospital, I was able to do the whole thing from home. My specific treatment requires five full days of chemo which means going to the treatment center once a day to receive a new bag which I carry around for me for the next 24 hours. It's a lot like a fanny pack, except that it's connected directly to my bloodstream and makes a mechanical click every minute or so. As inconvenient as the bag gets, anything is better than having to stay in the hospital.
It's the week after chemo that's worse than the actual treatment. That's when the side effects kick in. I feel tired and achey. My taste buds are completely dead and that's not to mention the sores in my mouth that the chemo causes. Fortunately, I've not had to deal with much nausea thus far. By far the worst, though, is the sweating. I am always hot. As New York is crippled under yet another snowstorm, my only concern is how to get my apartment colder.
So it was amidst all this that I decided to take some initiative. For months, I'd had no control, no choices about what happened to my body: you have cancer, you have to do chemo; you're having chemo, your body will experience these side effects. And so I decided to shave my head. The hair was going anyway, but it felt empowering to be the one who controlled the timing. My bald head may be cold in the winter, and I may not like how it looks in the mirror, but it was my choice. And you can't discount the power of having control.