Five months and well over 48 inches ago, I had a full head of hair – hair that, in fact, I had not cut in almost three years. Its tenure came to an abrupt end at the 2011 St. Baldrick’s Shave-a-Thon, an annual event which benefits the St. Baldrick’s Foundation for pediatric cancer research.
I was joined by a number of other brave women, including one who traveled from the far reaches of Minnesota to participate in this event. One young girl surrendered nearly two feet of beautiful blonde locks, while another female participant – facing her own battle with cancer, having only recently re-grown her hair lost to the rigors of treatment – shaved her head in honor of kids fighting the same fight.
Once I took my seat in the barber’s chair, it hit me smack in the face.
For a woman, taking it all off is insanely intense.
This is not to discredit the generosity and selflessness of the men who shaved their heads for the cause. Each fine fellow who “took the bald” helped raise awareness, raise money and raise the spirits of the pediatric cancer patients in the audience that day.
Two months following the event, however, you’d be hard pressed to spot the male shavees in a crowd.
Five months after the event, we women shavees tow a strikingly different line. Five months and a meager two inches later, I still resemble a spiky Chia® pet and feel a hint of surprise each time I catch a glimpse of my reflection.
My involvement with St. Baldrick’s opened my heart to the hardships and hope of pediatric cancer patients. It’s after the “after” that has opened my eyes to the issues of identity and confidence faced by women who lose their hair to cancer treatment. This foray into female baldness has taught me a lot about how people view women and how a woman can view herself.
I’ve heard the questions left unasked and felt those curious sideways glances. Whispers or giggles, conversation that falls to a hush, gazes met and gazes averted as you walk by. Standing out when sometimes you just want to blend in.
In a blog for Psychology Today, Deborah King, a health and wellness expert and media commentator, explored the significant relationship between a woman and her hair with the following: “You know the saying, a woman’s crowning glory is her hair. Without it, she seems ill or disfigured in the eyes of the world, and therefore in her own eyes.”
With every emotion I’ve experienced since surrendering my hair – the insecurity, the uneasy sense of standing out, the fears of being judged, or pitied, or dismissed for my appearance – I am at least bolstered by the fact that I had a choice. I chose to take on this new appearance. I went willingly into bald. Beyond that, I had my health.
Women who lose their hair to the rigors of cancer treatment do not have that choice. These women, confronted with cancer and moving forward into the unknown, are faced with even losing the comfort of their old familiar reflection in the mirror. Their illness and struggle, things so intensely personal, are magnified by this hair loss and highlighted by the striking transition to baldness.
Ann Yager, director of the Village Pointe Cancer Center and a cancer survivor, recalls the surprise of learning that she would lose her hair as early as one week into chemotherapy treatments.
The experience of hair loss for a cancer patient can be startling. “Your hair begins to fall out in big clumps,” Ann said. The initial loss led her to shave her head, using “a sticky lint roller every morning and night” to corral the remaining loose hairs.
“I think many times, hair loss is such an emotional time for many patients,” Ann continues. “It was always the obvious thing that made me a cancer patient to everyone else. I wanted to be treated the same, and always felt like my lack of hair … defined me as a ‘patient.’”
Opened in the spring of 2011, The Life Renewal Center at the Village Pointe Cancer Center seeks to tackle many of the appearance-related issues that cancer patients face. Now, in addition to the clinical expertise available at the hospital, a space exists to address the emotional side of cancer treatment. Among the services offered at the center are wig fitting, prosthetic assistance, educational sessions, massage therapy, yoga and support group meetings. The Life Renewal Center currently has a grant from the Susan G. Komen foundation which allows the center to provide wigs, free of charge, for people who might not otherwise be able to afford one.
“When you feel unattractive, you just don’t have any spark,” Ann said. “It’s amazing how much your hair plays a role.”
Send a spark this holiday season by donating to the Life Renewal Center. Contact Judy Booth, major gifts officer in the Office of Development, at 402-552-6707 or firstname.lastname@example.org to support patients seeking wigs or other confidence-building assistance to help them face the challenges of their illness.
Your support can help ignite the spirit of a survivor this season.