What I Learned from Cancer … And Wigs


Congratulations!” they said. “You’re done with treatment! You’ll have hair again! You’ll have your life back!”

This second time around with cancer, I know that mythical “finish line” marks the beginning of another marathon: recovery. It’s longer than most think, and there’s no lovely, predictable end date. Energy levels, brain function and appetites are not handed over in a paper bag at the end of chemotherapy. The good news is: hair. It grows back quickly and will soon be one precious, magnificent inch long.

I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer and given a 50-50 chance of surviving it. Without my year of treatment, my chances would have hovered around 15 to 20 percent. I’m not trying to bum people out with these numbers. What I’m trying to convey is this: The situation was serious.

Oddly, I find I’m rarely serious about it. Yes, it poses inconveniences — the days sucked uselessly into waiting rooms spring to mind. But having my worst fears come true has freed me in ways I never thought possible. I laugh more, I complain less. And being bald? That has taken my hair game to the next level.

Think pink: The writer in one of her favorite wigs.

What to Do with 1 Inch of Hair
In the post-treatment survivorship meeting with the medical team, you get a folder full of materials and resources. The first time, I was told, “Go forth and enjoy your cancer-free life!” The second time I got a different folder. They said, “Well, hopefully that worked.” Then commandments were issued:

“You must see these doctors every three months. You must get bloodwork. If anything changes in your body — anything, anywhere — get it checked that day.” But, they added with zero irony, “don’t become a hypochondriac.”

Why would I develop hypochondria? Just because symptoms of fatal recurrences can appear anywhere, at any time, in any organ system in my body? I moved every doctor’s contact number into my favorites on my phone. With 1 inch of hair, a little hypochondria might be forgiven.

What to Do with 2 Inches of Hair
Two inches of hair regrowth may signal the end of a bald girl’s love-hate relationship with her wigs.

When my doctor first wrote me a prescription for a “cranial prosthesis” (Latin for “wig”) for “alopecia” (Latin for “farewell, sweet eyebrows”), I headed to the hospital boutique and bought a wig in my hair color and style. I hated it.

Then I went to the cheap wig shops and bought wigs I would love. Purple, pink, blue, Cher, Dolly Parton, Katy Perry: I had them all. These wigs helped reset my thinking: Cancer is serious, but I don’t always have to be. We are not cancer, after all, but the real challenge is peeling off that “property of cancer” sticker every day.

After my first peppy survivorship meeting, I ditched my 11 wigs. I knew I might need them again. But I also knew it was time to begin my biggest recovery challenge: evicting fear. I could let it twist up my life like a vine, choking me. I couldn’t honestly say I had recovered from cancer until I faced it.

Although I entertained ideas of running the wigs over with my car or setting them on fire, in the end, I donated them to drag queens at an AIDS fundraiser. My wigs would enjoy a fabulous second life on stage instead of moldering in the attic, whispering threats that cancer could return.

Well, it did. But I didn’t regret ditching the wigs, because as my hair had grown back, I had banned, along with the wigs: wishing, what ifs, could have beens and might bes. If one nice thing can be said of cancer, it rather forcibly adjusts your focus to the present. There’s only the here and now. I was lucky to be healthy right up to the day I wasn’t again.

And anyway, I had learned from my wig mistakes during the first round. I learned that bleach-blonde hair makes me look like a failed country singer and that I cannot pull off heavy bangs without looking like Velma from “Scooby-Doo.” Emboldened with this knowledge, I amassed 14 new wigs the second time. But by the time I’d regrown 2 inches of hair, I owned zero wigs again.

What to Do with 3 Inches of Hair
Welcome back, eyebrows and eyelashes! No matter the season, this phase of the grow-out will give you a summer haircut. Have a little fun with it: Try some new product and experiment. Try a Halle Berry or a Princess Diana circa 1986.

With 3 inches of hair, we go to the doctor frequently, and the doctor may find the dreaded Anomaly That Could Signal a Recurrence of That-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named. At this point, our fear will be highest, but the likelihood of any fluke in our bloodwork being Voldemort, er, cancer, is probably lowest. Why? Ask your hair. The chemo managed to seek and destroy every single cell of that down to your nose hairs: Do you think it missed something?

So, we sit shivering in our paper gowns. Is that mole cancerous? Why are my glands swollen? Are these just traits that always existed in our bodies BC (before cancer), never noticed because of their banality, or is this the lone survivor of the chemo-pocalypse? It’s possible. But unlikely.

Walking that line between vigilance and fear is the challenge that accompanies 3 inches of hair. If we don’t, suffering wins. And we bald girls are not sufferers. We can’t choose much, but we can choose that. And there’s always gel for the awkward hair days.

4 Luminous Inches of Hair
When 4 inches of hair separate you from your cancer, you’re a cancer alum. You smile knowingly when you see bald girls from your alma mater. As you get your first haircut (in probably over a year), you know you’ve changed. Your hair might be curly or a different color from when you were a frosh.

I had also learned a few things at this unpleasant school such as that there is no “someday.” Nothing reprioritizes your time like a potential limitation on it. “Someday,” I used to think. “I’ll do all the things I’ve wanted to do. Right after I finish [meaningless crap].” For bald girls, “someday” no longer exists. And I’m beginning to suspect it never did.

Torment and pain are part of life. Choosing to remain tormented is optional. People in my life? My choice. Thoughts? My choice. Reactions? My choice. Medical test results? Arbitrary. Not my choice. But a lack of options in some areas brought the changeable areas of life into stark relief. I realized that by letting the unchangeable frustrations of life drain my time and energy, I was aiding a crime against myself and my happiness. It’s funny how you can pick up a habit of giving everything — whether you can change it or not — equal weight, attention and importance. With 4 inches of regrown hair, this was something I didn’t do anymore.

I used to spend time caring about other people’s expectations and tailoring my responses to them. Now I speak my mind, expressing love to friends and family and denying safe harbor to those who don’t treat me or others with respect and kindness.

By the time we’ve regrown it, we bald girls know hair is situational. But happiness, amazingly, is not.

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