There is a cold southerly wind coming up the Gulf this afternoon, whipping the grey-green waves into white-capped frenzy and chilling the bones. I was out running errands earlier and the thought came into my head: I’m so glad to have hair keeping my head warm, because there was a time when I didn’t have any.
I am many years past my experience with chemotherapy. I had it as part of my treatment for breast cancer, in the summer of 2001-2002. I don’t have many pictures of me without hair but here is one. We were out on Dad’s sailboat and I always wore this blue Nike hat. You can’t really see that I was completely bald, but believe me, I was.
My first diagnosis of breast cancer was October 2001 and I had three months of chemo. My second, diagnosed in October 2016 (almost to the day of the first) was a whole new breast cancer, different to the initial one and caught so early, thankfully, that chemo was not needed.
Let’s face it. Losing your hair is traumatic, even though you know full well it’s going to happen. For me, it didn’t happen overnight, but it did happen, slowly at first, a few hairs on the pillow, and then clumps, wisping off in my fingers, so thick that I washed my hair in a large plastic container so we could dump the lot out the back without having to clog up the plumbing.
Then a friend came up and shaved off what was left with her electric razor and that was that. And wow, was my head cold, even in the middle of a hot summer. I wore a selection of snazzy do-rags that a dear friend sent me from the US (these are the ones the cool bikers wear), coupled with caps and a warm beanie at night because that’s when my head was especially cold.
My Dad was never one to give compliments but one day he was looking at me and my bald head, and he said, ‘You know, you’re very beautiful.’ I did look very different without hair and we can look beautiful, even in the midst of cancer treatment, when everything is falling off, falling down, and we’re generally falling into the absolute fatigue and brain-numb that can accompany heavy doses of chemo drugs.
All I knew was my head was cold. I didn’t think I looked beautiful but there was a certain grace to this smooth head of mine, and I notice it when I see women who are obviously undergoing cancer treatments, a quiet dignity and a stoicism to just get on with it, see it through, tough it out, buoyed up by the knowledge that yes, your hair will grow back, yes you will feel better, and, oh yes, you are most beautiful too.
Jane Bissell is an Auckland-based writer and author of 'Welcome to the Amazon Club'. www.janebissellwriting.com