My three-year-old son loves picking up seashells. He combs the beach with laser precision, able to spot a treasure no matter how obscured or buried it may be. And he procures them with gusto, gleefully exclaiming, “here’s an awesome one!”
Last week we made our annual family trek to the beach, so pretty much every day, he and I trawled the shoreline looking for shells.
But after the first day or so, I began to notice something. While I searched for perfect specimens–symmetrical shells with no breaks or holes or other blemishes–my son was a bit less discriminating. Actually, it was like he was intentionally trying to pick up the gnarliest, most pitiful shells he could find.
“Look at this one,” I called to him, holding up a pristine white oyster shell.
He studied it for a second and then held up a broken piece of a similar shell, “But check this one out!”
At first, I would reply in the affirmative just to humor him, but after a while, I started to realize something. The shells he was choosing actually were awesome.
Yeah, they were broken or oddly shaped or full of holes. But they were interesting. Different. Weird. My bucket full of perfectly-shaped, flawless shells was pretty, but it was also boring. I could find the exact same assemblage inside a lamp at the beach house, or in a prepackaged bag at a gift shop.
Whereas his was filled with cool colors, textures and shapes–splashes of purple and amber, the juxtaposition of jagged edges alongside sea-smoothed curves, shells that looked more like moon rocks than sea life, riddled with hundreds of tiny holes.
These shells told a story. They hadn’t arrived on the shore in one piece. They’d lost their inhabitants. They’d been battered, beaten and carried who knows how far by the currents, rolled up and down the beach as storms and tides stirred them up from the sea floor.
As I watched my son marvel over these imperfect pieces, I began to see the beauty in broken things. The uneven, misshapen things. The not-quite-right things. The battered and scarred things.
We get so caught up searching for perfection–the right haircut, the perfectly-shaped breasts, the thin thighs, the flat stomachs, the smooth skin–that we miss the utter, distinctive beauty right in front of our asymmetrical faces.
Those imperfections tell our story–who we are, where we came from, what we’ve been through. They make us interesting. They make us individuals. And whether we choose to believe it or not, they make us beautiful.
Even though it’s technically still spring, it’s pretty much summer in the South. The temperatures have already hit 90 more than once, and afternoon showers mean the humidity levels stay high. Hot and muggy–that’s the forecast for the next five months.
Last summer, with my chemo curls in full effect, I struggled to keep my hair from becoming a frizzy mess atop my head. Headbands were my go-to, along with a healthy dose of texturizing cream and some hairspray.
This summer, I actually have a decent bit of length to my hair. It’s actually at or maybe even a little longer than when I got it cut before beginning chemo:
But while it’s longer, it’s certainly not straighter. My chemo curls are still in full effect. And to be perfectly honest, I am sick of them.
Sure, my curls are cute. And I’ve tried my best to rock them proudly. I get a lot of compliments on them. But, again, if we’re being totally honest here, I kind of hate them.
The reasoning is two-fold. For one, they’re a pain in the ass to maintain. I have to use a special shampoo and conditioner to help deflate the frizz. Blow-drying is pretty much impossible, because that just leaves me with a poofy mess. So, to wear it curly, I usually wash it on the weekend (I’m a once- or twice-a-week hair washer), apply some texturizer and let it mostly air dry. And then I usually have to pin back part of it to keep it from being huge.
The other option is to straighten it, which is even more time-consuming–it takes at least an hour to wash, blow dry and flat-iron it into submission. And even then, I never get it totally straight. Those chemo curls fight pretty hard.
The second reason I hate my curls: They’re not me. I never had curly hair. I never wanted curly hair. The only reason I have curly hair is because something terrible happened to me. And so, they’re like a constant reminder that I had cancer. That I went through chemo. That I could go through all of that again.
I’ve done the whole “having fun with different hair” thing. I wore the pixie and dyed it red. I rocked funky headbands and barrettes. And I became a curly-haired gal for months.
But I’m over it. So that’s why I decided to get a Brazilian blowout.
I got the idea from a naturally curly-haired friend at work who recently got a keratin treatment. Her curls transformed to smooth, straight locks, and I was jealous.
So, I brought it up with my stylist at my last color appointment, and she told me she could give me that same look with the Brazilian blowout technique. It’s essentially a keratin treatment that relaxes the hair and reduces frizz. And the best part? It can last up to 12 weeks. Hells yeah.
Last week, I gave it a try. The process was pretty simple. My stylist first washed my hair with a clarifying shampoo to remove any buildup. Then she applied the solution and blow-dried my hair, using a round brush to straighten as she went. Then she used a flat iron to finish, leaving it bone-straight.
And then she washed it again. Weird, I know, but that’s part of the process. After washing and conditioning, she repeated the blow-drying process. Only this time, my hair was dry and straight in what seemed like a matter of minutes. She then flat-ironed it just a bit for extra smoothing, but honestly, that wasn’t totally necessary. Y’all, my hair is SO straight–even in the back, which is a really hard place for me to totally straighten.
I went three days of sleeping on it, walking around in the rain and humidity, and it stayed pretty straight. By the third day, I decided to test out the washing and styling process.
I did purchase the Brazilian Blowout shampoo and conditioner from my salon, but I don’t know for certain that it makes a ton of difference.
After washing it, I noticed my wet hair was slightly wavy on the ends, but nothing like the ringlets that normally form after wetting it. I combed it out and did my usual blow dry straightening with a round brush. I noticed immediately that it was far less poofy as I dried it, and it was straightening much faster and easier. Once I’d blow dried the hair (in sections–I use clips to hold the upper layers to get the hair underneath), I went over it with my flat iron. This also was much easier and it seemed to get much straighter than usual.
Here’s how it looked after I finished styling it myself:
I didn’t get it quite as straight as my stylist, but pretty darn close. Each day since I’ve had to straighten it just a touch in the morning after showering (I haven’t washed it again, but it still gets a little damp in the shower). And I just took a walk outside in the super-thick humidity, and it has taken on an ever-so-slight wave, but for the most part, it’s still straight.
Y’all, this is a revelation. This is about more than just my hair. It’s like I got a piece of my old self back–I feel like me again. And with all the changes I’ve experienced in the past two years, that is a very welcome feeling.
When I was younger, bra shopping was a bit of a thrill. As a teenager not even close to letting a boy see anything beyond the occasional strap slip, fancy lingerie was pretty much for my own personal enjoyment, and shopping for it felt a little naughty.
As I got older, I’d make the twice-yearly pilgrimage to the mall, sidling elbow-to-elbow with other bra bargain hunters to dig through the discount bins of Victoria’s Secret’s semi-annual sale. My collection of brassieres grew to necessitate their own drawer, filled with everything from racy lace numbers to the most utilitarian of sports bras.
In my mid-30s I became a mom, and breastfeeding forever altered my lingerie drawer. Punchy pink satin bras languished in favor of more practical–and comfortable–cotton nursing bras that I’d buy in bunches while lugging my newborn around Target.
Then cancer happened. I lost my breasts (or lost them in their natural state). While I opted for reconstruction, what I’ve been left with isn’t exactly what I’d had before. Never let anyone fool you into thinking mastectomy and reconstruction equates a “free boob job” (seriously, stop saying that, people).
That’s how I found myself at the mastectomy bra shop. I actually went there before my surgery to pick up some post-mastectomy supplies (sports bras with a front closure, camisoles with pouches built in to hold surgical drain bulbs). And once I’d healed, I came back for bras to fit my new body.
Unlike Victoria’s Secret, this bra shop operates pretty much by appointment only. Also unlike VS, they take insurance. Yes, this is one fantastic perk of this otherwise pretty shitty turn of events–insurance will pay for my bras. Of course, my new insurance makes it a huge pain in the ass by only approving one bra per day, meaning I have to go to the store multiple times to pick up my allotment one at a time (I’m trying not to complain about getting a bunch of bras for a small co-pay, but it is kind of annoying).
Being at the store is a strange experience. Just like at the cancer center, I’m usually the youngest person in the room, other than the sales staff. I sometimes think the salespeople enjoy that because they get to bring out all the fun, brightly colored, more youthful styles.
In the old days, the thought of someone joining me in the dressing room as I tried on bras would have sent me running for the door. But in this post-cancer world, such indignities don’t even phase me. That’s good, because trying on bras at the mastectomy shop is never a solo experience.
A very kind, sensitive woman helps me figure out what bras will work for my body. She brings me armfuls of different styles and sizes to try, and offers gel inserts to help me fill them out (lots of talk about how I don’t have an “apex”). Yes, even though I’ve gotten implants and fat grafting to help fill me out, the shape is different, and kind of weird. Because all of my breast tissue was removed, there’s a flatness to my chest above the implant, and there are also slight indentations where the grafted fat didn’t take (yeah, that happens).
It’s a long process to find bras that fit my weird shape and look and feel good. And while the saleslady does an excellent job of trying to make it as fun as possible for me, there’s still something uncomfortable and a little depressing about the process. It’s just another one of those moments where I ask myself, “Is this really my life? Is this really my body?”
Body image is one of the biggest struggles for breast cancer survivors. Even if you have reconstruction, it’s never perfect or exactly like what you had before. And you’re left with scars and all sorts of other physical reminders of the trauma you’ve been through. One the one hand, these things remind me how strong I am and what I’m capable of enduring. But on the other, they’re constant reminders that I’m different, both inside and out.
I feel like I talk about my hair too much (I definitely think about it too much), but as a cancer patient/survivor, hair is a really important topic. It gives you something a little healthier to obsess about than fear of recurrence/metastasis–it’s far more fun to research hairstyles on the internet than to constantly consult Dr. Google with symptoms.
This past week, I had a particularly exciting hair development. I went to see my stylist for a routine color appointment. I also wanted her to trim my ends and take some of the bulk out of my hair with thinning shears (I have really thick hair). This was all pretty much my normal hair maintenance routine before chemo.
After doing all that, she asked if I wanted her to straighten my hair. I hesitated–I’d tried this myself at home a few weeks ago and wasn’t crazy about the results–but decided to go for it since her skills are far superior to mine.
Boy, was I glad I made that decision!
Holy moley, y’all! I almost skipped out of the salon. This was the first time I looked and felt like my old self in almost a year-and-a-half. I was practically giddy in the car as I drove back to work. And the pleasantly surprised gasps and compliments my coworkers showered me with once I returned from my lunchtime appointment only further buoyed my spirits.
Of course, I don’t have the skills or patience to maintain or replicate this look at home. A few days after the blowout, I attempted to create the look again myself. I got it sort of straight, but not nearly as nice as my stylist did. But just knowing it’s possible feels sort of magical–it’s almost as though I got a piece of myself back.
I started thinking about my cancer journey through my hair. I feel like I’ve come sort of full-circle. Here’s what I mean:
This was me pre-chemo. It’s hard to believe my hair is almost as long as it was when I cut it just before I started chemo.
And, chemo time. The shot on the left was the day I had my husband buzz my hair off after I started getting bald spots from the clumps falling out. That was my patchy Britney Spears circa 2007 look. On the right is the only photo I ever took and saved of myself completely bald. I know a lot of women who fully embraced their baldness and have lots of gorgeous photos of themselves sans hair. I just never got to that point. I hated it, and when I looked at myself with no hair it just made me feel even more like a sick person.
The shot on the left is from mid-December 2016, about two-and-a-half months after my last chemo treatment. I was also about two-and-a-half weeks post-mastectomy there. I drug myself out of the house for my work holiday party that day because they were presenting me with the Employee of the Year Award. I remember sitting at a table, and a coworker introduced herself to me–she totally didn’t recognize me with no hair.
The shot on the right is about a month later, after I dyed my hair red.
These photos were taken in February and March of last year. March was six months post-chemo. I actually really liked this stage of regrowth. My hair was long enough to style a little, and I thought I looked cooler than I actually was with my pixie cut. Plus, the chemo curls hadn’t come in so much yet, so my hair wasn’t all over the place.
Hello, chemo curls! These photos were from May and August of last year. As my hair got longer and curlier, it got harder and harder to style. I had no clue what to do with it. So I started wearing headbands. They were the only way I could keep my hair relatively tame and in some sort of style. I also fell in love with Not Your Mother’s Beach Babe Texturizing Cream, a product I still use to this day to help keep my curls under control.
When I’m wearing my hair curly, which is most of the time, I have to do a little work to keep from looking like Bob Ross’ blonde little sister. Though it’s expensive, Deva Curl No-Poo shampoo and One Condition Decadence are awesome. My hair is noticeably softer and less frizzy when I use these products. I also like their Set It Free moisture-lock finishing spray. A few spritzes of this give my hair a little hold without making it stiff.
Another thing I can’t live without these days is bobby pins. When I’m wearing it curly, my routine is to wash it, work in a little of the texturizing cream and pin back pieces on either side so that they lie flat. Then I let it air dry. Or like today, I’ll pull some hair back off my face and pin it back in the center of my head.
One more thing to note: Getting haircuts is a crucial part of growing your hair out. When you go from having nothing, it seems counterproductive to cut what little bit you have. But it is so necessary! I never thought about it until I went through it, but while your hair grows at the same rate on your head, different placement makes it look longer in spots. In other words, if you don’t trim the back you will have a mullet. Nobody wants a mullet (sorry, Mike Gundy). Seeing that precious hair you’ve only just gotten back falling onto the floor with every snip is hard, but it’s worth it.
I remember being fresh off chemo with my peach fuzz head, barely able to imagine no longer being able to see my gleaming white scalp. But here I am. And if you’re going through this and feeling like you’ll never get there, trust, you will, too.
The other day I logged into Facebook and was greeted with a blast from the past via their “On This Day” feature. It was a photo from last January’s Las Vegas Market, my first work trip since my cancer diagnosis.
That trip felt a bit like a coming out party. I’d been off the road for nearly six months, and I was completely changed, inside and out.
Particularly out. At that point, my hair was just growing back in, and I’d decided to dye it red for a change of pace. I had a funky new pair of glasses, and I was trying to figure out how to feel comfortable in my skin again after the world-rocking experience of cancer, chemotherapy and mastectomy.
Looking at that photo, I couldn’t help thinking how here a year later, I once again look completely different. I did a side-by-side comparison for you–these photos were taken almost exactly a year apart, to the day.
I can’t help noticing more about the photo on the left than just my hair. There’s a sadness in my eyes in that first shot, and a feeling of trepidation. I look like I want to smile, but just can’t quite bring myself to do it. I’m still too tired, still too fearful, still too worn to even fake joy.
And here I am today on the right. There’s a smirk, but not a full smile. I’m not quite there yet. My hair is wild, curly and blonde. The latter feels like the me I was before all this, but those wild curls seem to represent how I feel about my life now. One of my favorite sayings is: “You can’t control everything–your hair was put on your head to remind you of that.” Ain’t it the truth?!
I have a new appreciation for relinquishing control. Or accepting that I cannot control everything, and that’s OK. Are there days that living that truth is hard? Hell yes. But it’s an important lesson to learn, and even though I hate the way I was taught it, I’m glad for the knowledge nonetheless.
This last year has been one of growth for me on so many fronts. From my hair to my health to my emotional well-being, I’m in a better place than I was in January 2017. And while I still have plenty of growing to do (particularly on that hair front!), I’m happy with what I’ve accomplished thus far. Growth is hard, but growth is so good.
Christmas is one of those times of year that makes the absence of someone you love more pronounced than usual. The sharpness of the hole they’ve left in your heart–a recent mark or a cavern that’s grown by inches as each year without them passes–seems craggier, more dangerous this time of year. Tears come fast. Memories surprise you at unexpected moments, dredging up feelings you thought long buried.
Of course, the emotional masochist I am, I bring some of this on myself. I willingly repeat rituals that remind me that my mother is gone. Hanging her ornaments on my tree. Baking the gingersnaps she made each year. Listening to Judy Garland–her namesake–croon mournfully about missing someone at Christmas.
The crazy thing about these rituals is that while they remind me she’s gone, they make me feel closer to her, too. This year, as I hung the ornaments, my son joined in–mirroring the annual tradition my mother and I had of putting up the tree together. He also helped scoop flour and lick the beaters as I mixed the gingersnap dough–another thing she and I shared. I could almost feel her there with us.
That sense of her presence intensified on Christmas morning. My husband gifted me a bottle of perfume–Estee Lauder’s Youth Dew.
Youth Dew is not a young woman’s scent. Even the bottle–cinched in the middle with a dainty gold bow–has a vintage air. Its heady, spicy aroma is not the type of thing you lightly spritz on a spring day. This is a grown woman’s smell. This is the scent she wears when she wants to feel fancy, luxurious, beautiful.
My mother loved Youth Dew. It was pretty expensive for a family on a budget, so when she got a bottle, she savored it. This wasn’t a daily scent–this was something reserved for special occasions. And while I can’t for the life of me remember anything she wore on a daily basis, I remember Youth Dew.
I carefully opened its signature blue box (almost Tiffany, but not quite) and gently removed the glass bottle of brown liquid topped in a gold cap that matched its delicate gold bow. I just held it in my hands for a moment, looking at it, feeling the weight of it, before finally uncapping and spritzing a bit on my wrist.
That first inhale was like one of those life passing before your eyes highlight reels in a movie. My mother at church. My mother on Christmas Day. My mother at my graduation. My mother smiling with a confidence she didn’t often feel. It smelled just like her, a scent I haven’t smelled in nearly 20 years.
But the longer I wore it, the scent began to change. Perfumes tend to do this–alter slightly with the body chemistry of the person wearing it. It still smelled like Youth Dew, but a little different. A little more me than her.
Like the Youth Dew, all these traditions I carry on to keep her alive are just a little different. For a long time, I did them solo, and now my son joins me, building our own traditions on the foundation of my mom’s. And while the same essence of love and ritual remains, the act is changed–a little more me than her.
A strange thing has started to happen–people are telling me they love my hair.
This is not a completely new occurrence. Friends, family and coworkers who’ve witnessed this journey over the past year often comment on my wild mane of chemo curls. They know how excited I am to have some tresses of my own again, no matter how unruly they may be.
What’s odd is strangers or people who’ve met me since treatment and don’t know about my cancer making positive comments about my hair.
It happened the other day at Jersey Mike’s, of all places. I was in line and the shop owner–a chatty guy who gabs with all his customers–made a comment about my hair. He throws out compliments generously, so I wasn’t really surprised by his statement. It was the response of the woman standing in front of me in line that left me speechless.
She told me how she always noticed my hair when she’d see me in the restaurant (I have a weekly sandwich habit), wondering if she could make that cut work for her own curly tresses. She genuinely wanted hair like mine, hair that I’m often struggling to love.
It happened again at work. A new coworker has several times remarked how much she loves my hair, asking if it naturally curls like that. To avoid the awkward cancer explanation, I just smiled and nodded. “I’m so jealous,” she replied.
There are few things stranger than having someone tell you they’re jealous of your out-of-control chemo curls.
I recently got an actual haircut (adios, poufy mullet!), which has given my mane a bit of shape. I’m back to my old blonde, and I’m able to pin back pieces with bobby pins to give it some semblance of a style. All this to say: I don’t really hate my hair right now. I kind of dig it, actually.
But, it still feels weird to get compliments. I think it’s because for so long now, my bald head/short hair has been a symbol of my illness–an obvious clue that something is wrong with me.
Now it has gotten to a length that looks as though it were cut that way on purpose. And to the passing stranger or unsuspecting coworker, it doesn’t look any different than any other short hairdo.
It’s just another piece of the puzzle of putting my normal (whatever that means now) life back together. To the rest of the world, I no longer look like a cancer patient. It’s no longer obvious something terrible happened to me. And while part of me has a hard time reconciling that–since the trauma of it is still pretty fresh in my mind–I’m mostly glad to just look like everyone else.
While I never wanted to be diagnosed with cancer, having this disease has led to me meeting some pretty amazing people.
Anna Crollman is one of them. I discovered Anna’s fabulous blog, My Cancer Chic, while scouring Pinterest for tips on making my post-chemo hair grow back. Anna’s also a young breast cancer survivor, and she started the blog two years ago after struggling to find resources for beauty and style guidance for those during and post treatment and surgery.
And in a small world-type moment, I realized that Anna lives just down the road from me in North Carolina. So, I thought she and her blog would be a great subject for a fashion and beauty column I write for The News & Observer of Raleigh.
One thing Anna and I talked about during our chat was how alone young breast cancer patients can feel because most of the women diagnosed with this disease are not among our peer group. She does a great job of providing resources and inspiration to women of all ages dealing with this disease, but particularly those of us who are under 40.
If you’re in treatment, a survivor or just interested in great beauty and wellness tips from a stylish, vibrant young woman, I encourage you to check the blog out!
I’ve always had a lot of hair.
As a kid, I would suffer through sob-inducing post-bath de-tangling sessions with my mom, her hands nearly cramping from raking a comb through my long, matted hair.
In my 20s, I went to a stylist who called over some of her coworkers to show them exactly how much hair was on my head–circus freak-style. And my poor current stylist would sometimes have to take breaks while coloring, cutting and styling my hair during the waning months of her first pregnancy.
Of course, all that changed with chemo.
But here’s the good news (besides that clean path report): My hair is growing back!
And boy, is it growing back weird.
In Cancerland (that sounds like the world’s worst theme park, doesn’t it?), they call the situation I’ve got going on “chemo curls.” My hair is about an inch long, and in the back especially, it is curly. Really curly. Shirley Temple with a Richard Simmons perm curly.
Apparently, this is another fun side effect of the chemo. A friend who’s much smarter than me when it comes to matters of science explained that the chemo curls happen because even though it’s been months since I’ve had a treatment, the lingering effects of the drugs remain in my system. That’s kind of crazy to think about. That’s also why after six months to a year, the hair starts growing back as it normally would (in my case, not curly).
In the meantime, I have no clue what to do with this mess on my head. I’ve tried all manner of taming methods–texturizers, headbands, etc. I’ve also played around with the color a bit. For a while, I thought I might like to be a redhead. Then I realized, nope, what I really want is to be blonde again. It’s weird, but even though my blonde comes out of a bottle, it makes me feel more like me.
So, I went to the salon a couple weeks ago to get some highlights. I was amazed that the stylist was able to put my short, kinky strands in foils. That is some next-level styling, right there.
The result isn’t exactly where I was before, but a step in the right direction to looking more like the me I see in my mind’s eye.
That’s the thing about this whole losing my hair process–in my mind, it never really happened. When I imagine in my mind’s eye how I look, I look as I always have with long, blonde hair. It is truly jarring sometimes to catch a glimpse of my reflection and see how I really look.
I get lots of compliments on my short hair. A lot of the time, I think people are just being nice because they feel sorry for me having gone through this shit. Sometimes the compliments come from strangers, though, so I think they might be genuine. Regardless, while I appreciate being told I look “cool” or “sassy” or whatever, I can’t really love this hair. While I’m very grateful to have it at all, the current state of my tresses is just a constant reminder that something really bad happened. And something really bad could happen again.
So, I’ll let it keep growing. And hopefully I’ll figure out a way to grow with it.