If there’s ever a nuclear disaster, there will be two things remaining once the mushroom cloud has settled – cockroaches and eyebrow hair. After my second chemotherapy treatment, all my body hair fell out pretty much instantaneously, except for about half my eyebrow hairs which held on through a further 12 weeks of chemotherapy. It was only those few hairs that stopped me from having to draw on my eyebrows. I have limited skills in the make-up application department, and was fearful that if left alone with an eyebrow pencil long enough, I would end up looking like a bald Joan Crawford.
I am an avid reader of a blog called Tune into Radio Carly, which is written by Carly Findlay who is an appearance activist, writer, speaker and tv presenter. Carly has a genetic skin condition called ichthyosis which causes her skin to be red and scaly, and therefore her appearance to be visibly different. I’ve learned so much from reading Carly’s blog over the past few years, and when I was bald, I got a tiny, brief insight into what it’s like being physically different.
I’ve certainly never been hot stuff or even remotely close, but have ‘average’ looks and fit into the standard white anglo mould, which has allowed me get through life in a pretty steady fashion. Then, in a matter of two months I had my right breast cut off and lost all the hair off my body (apart from the aforementioned eyebrow hairs). I was suddenly dropped bald head-first into the world of stares, double-takes and backward glances, which when you are already feeling very fragile, is not a nice place to be.
For the five weeks after I had the mastectomy, I had to get about with a very dodgy pretend boob which used to try to sit on my shoulder like a pillowy parrot. I suspect that nobody else in the supermarket was looking at me closely enough to actually notice, but it made me really self-conscious and I was so, so happy when I got my real fake boob. It was amazing how much impact feeling like I looked like I did before had on my mental state. That lasted only a couple of weeks until, just days after my second chemo treatment, the majority of my hair fell out one morning in the shower. I quite literally went into the shower with a full head of short hair (I’d had it cut in preparation), and came out looking like a mutant peach with patches of fuzz mixed with sections of completely bald noggin. My husband then set about using his Bic razor to even things up. I’m pretty sure our marriage vows did not include any mention of shaving your wife’s partially bald head, but I guess things like that fall into the general categories of love and honour.
I had mixed feelings about being bald. On the upside, it is really freeing not to have to wash or comb or dry or colour or cut your hair, and the feeling of showering when you have a bald head is absolutely amazing – I would often stand under the flow in a blissful trance until the hot water ran out. On the downside, I certainly did not have the confidence to get about bald in public, so my choices were pretty limited – wigs, scarves or hats. In the very early days I tried a couple of wigs, but the combination of my very large head and the fact that it was Queensland in summer, meant that after about 45 seconds of wig-wearing I looked like a sweaty, itchy lady with bad Lego hair.
So I moved on to scarves. I love scarves as a fashion accessory, but prefer them wrapped around my neck in winter, and not my head in summer. I bought about a dozen in a vain (and I mean that both ways) attempt to find something that didn’t make me look like a middle-aged female pirate. I soon found out that even if my scarf didn’t have a skull and cross-bone pattern and I wasn’t wearing a single hoop earring and an eye patch, being an obviously bald woman wearing a scarf brought me lots of unwanted attention in public. The first time I ventured out after I’d lost my hair was to a local shopping centre. I immediately noticed people staring as I walked past them, and there were several people who did the classic double-take, as well as a few who actually stopped in their tracks to watch me as I made my way through Target. I felt incredibly uncomfortable, but when I got home my husband reassured me that people wouldn’t be so rude as to stare and I was just being overly sensitive. However the next time I was in public and he was with me, he realised that it was not my imagination and in fact people were actually as rude as I had first thought.
When you’re dealing with cancer, you’re faced with many uncomfortable situations, such as conversations with doctors about what chance you have (expressed as a percentage) of still being alive in five years. But those situations and the way you deal with the outcomes of them are thankfully done in private, whereas losing your hair makes your cancer conspicuous to the world, which apparently causes some people turn into thoughtless shopping centre rubber-neckers and others to feel the need to ask the most impertinent of personal questions. While I was bald I was asked by a check-out operator what sort of cancer I have, by another customer in a bank if I’d had a mastectomy or just a lumpectomy, and by someone who I’d met two minutes earlier outside our kids’ classroom if I was planning to have more children once I got over the cancer.
The bald head and thinning eyebrows seemed to cause all social norms to go out the window, and honestly I would have just hidden away at home for the duration if I’d had any choice in the matter. But we still needed food to eat and Christmas and birthday presents had to be bought, and my boy still needed to be taken to school every day, so I just learned to steel myself with a few deep breaths and push through the world pretending not to notice or care about what others were thinking or saying. It pains me to think about people who live every day with visible difference and the rudeness that they are subjected to as a matter of course.
Today, I have a lovely crop of hair and eyebrows that could actually do with a wax. People don’t look twice at me in shopping centres and I am just as nondescript and zombie-like as every other poor person in a long lunch-time bank queue. I look like a stock standard middle-aged woman, and with every passing day I feel a tiny little bit less like I have the word cancer stamped all over my psyche. All I’m waiting for now is an invitation to a fancy dress party because I have a shitload of options in my wardrobe … as long as the theme is ‘adventure on the high seas’.