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.
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.
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.
Last night, I dreamed I had hair.
I was walking through a hotel lobby, wearing a cute dress and kind of bouncing with a little swagger in my step. And as I walked, I could feel my long hair bouncing along with me. I remember in the dream touching it, surprised, because I couldn’t believe it was actually there.
I miss my hair so much. I know this is a silly, vain thing. I know that in the grand scheme of things, this is such a minor inconvenience. I know that I should just be grateful that my treatments appear to be working, and the side effect of losing my hair is a small price to pay. I acknowledge all of this.
But, I still miss it.
I run my hands over the fuzz that’s left on my head, willing it to grow and multiply. My oncologist told me that it could start growing back while I’m on Taxol, and I’m trying so hard not to get overly excited at that prospect, lest it not actually happen.
I look at other people out in public, envying them and their full heads of hair. I feel like people with beautiful hair are everywhere. And I’m so jealous of them.
I gaze wistfully at my hair products and appliances, seeing them gather dust in my bathroom. I still shampoo my head, which is kind of silly since there’s so little actual hair there, but it feels better to me to at least use a little something.
I got a pretty nice wig, but to be perfectly honest, I hate wearing it. It looks so fake to me (even though it has fooled quite a few people at my job), it gets hot and itchy, and it has a weird smell. I thought wigs would be fun, but I think they’re more fun when you’re not forced to wear them. I much prefer just wearing my beat-up old ballcap that I’ve had since high school.
So, I’m just watching and waiting, hoping to see some growth.