Hi, friends! Just wanted to share the news that I wrote an essay for Birchbox Magazine on learning to embrace my chemo curls. You can give it a read here.
Hi, friends! Just wanted to share the news that I wrote an essay for Birchbox Magazine on learning to embrace my chemo curls. You can give it a read here.
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.
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.
One of the things people never really warn you about with a cancer diagnosis are the awkward conversations.
There’s the unpleasant business of telling your family, friends and co-workers. There are the “how are you feeling” questions that during chemo you want to answer, “like a steaming pile of shit just flattened by a tank.” But you don’t because you’re Southern and too polite for your own good. There are the conversations with your oncologist about how menopause is affecting your sex life. SO much awkward.
And the thing is, they don’t end with the conclusion of treatment.
This week, I went to a conference for work. I saw lots of people from the industry I cover who’ve seen me go from a long-haired blonde to a pixie-cut redhead to the blonde, curly mop I’m sporting now.
Because I never made any sort of public announcement about my cancer (because that would have been super-awkward), most of them have no idea what I’ve been through or why my hair has changed so drastically.
One sweet gal remarked how much she loved seeing all the hairstyle changes over the past year. She was genuinely complimenting me, so I just smiled. But inside? So awkward.
Another time, a colleague from a previous job who now works for one of the furniture companies I write about remarked on my short, curly hair. “Is it naturally curly?” She asked, having always known me to have straight hair. “No,” I responded. Later I laughed, realizing she probably thought I’d cut my hair off and permed what was left. She probably thought I’d lost my mind!
I could’ve just told these people the truth. I didn’t cut my hair; it fell out. And when it finally grew back, it was curly. Because of chemo. Because I had cancer.
But like I’ve said before, that’s a giant turd to drop on someone. It stops the conversation. It changes the tone. It makes people feel…awkward.
Just like I’ve learned to talk around my dead mom when new people ask about my family, I’m learning to talk around my cancer. Not out of shame or anything like that, but just to make things easier. When things have been so hard, a little ease is worth any internal awkwardness I may feel.
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.
It’s hard for me to believe this, but today marks one year since I last had chemo.
I know that’s kind of a weird anniversary to mark, but it signaled the end of the hardest part of my treatment, and a turning point in my treatment plan.
I was originally scheduled to receive four rounds of two drugs, Adriamycin (doxorubicin) and Cytoxan (cyclophosphamide), followed by 12 rounds of Taxol. The AC regimen was tough. But I made it through.
Taxol was supposed to be a walk in the park compared to the cocktail of these two powerful drugs (Adriamycin is nicknamed “The Red Devil” both for its crimson hue and how it makes you feel). But I ended up being the special case that can’t tolerate the medication, and I became very ill. After two terrifying, uncomfortable weeks of fevers, headaches and MRIs, my still-depleted white blood cell count made it clear that the chemo was behind all my troubles.
At that point, my doctor decided to discontinue chemo and proceed with surgery because he feared continuing with the drug would damage my bone marrow. So, I missed the last 11 doses of Taxol. While I sometimes wonder if that will come back to haunt me in the future, I can’t say I was too upset about getting an early reprieve from chemo.
So, how am I today, one year after completing that part of treatment? Pretty good, all things considered.
Physically, I feel great. It’s funny because most of the actual feeling bad from having cancer came from the treatment, not the disease itself. Once I finished treatment, most of that unpleasantness (fever, headache, nausea, fatigue) went away. I’m still dealing with the side effects of menopause–which technically started with chemo and kicked into high gear after my oophorectomy–but that stuff is pretty manageable.
My hair is still a work in progress. A year ago I was completely bald, save about half a dozen little whispies that never fell out (my brave soldiers!). This was my hair about a week ago:
As you can see, it’s still pretty curly. Although, I think the curl is starting to phase out a bit (the hair coming in at the roots seems straighter). I actually even had a real haircut last week, as the back was getting a bit long and unruly (I basically had a curly mullet).
I also lost a toenail due to chemo (a lovely side effect of Taxol), and that has almost completely grown back in.
Chemo can also cause lingering cognitive issues (chemo brain). While I certainly have my moments of fogginess, I’m not sure they can be chalked up to chemo.
Last week at my checkup, my blood work showed my white blood cell count slightly down. My oncologist said this was normal in someone who’s had chemo, though, so I guess the lingering effects of the drug can still mess with my immunity, too.
So, where am I with treatment now? I am essentially done, save the adjuvant therapy I’ll be on for the next decade. That’s a pill I take every day called Tamoxifen. Since my cancer is estrogen-receptive (estrogen basically feeds it), Tamoxifen works to block estrogen from feeding cells and causing them to become cancerous. Some people have a lot of difficulty with this drug, but thankfully I’ve handled it pretty well thus far.
At this point, I’m mostly just dealing with all the emotional aftermath and figuring out how to move forward in my life. That’s getting better every day, too, and I’ve learned some new coping mechanisms to help me along the way.
Cancer treatment is a long process. I don’t think I fully understood that even at this point a year ago. But standing here now, I’m thankful to have come as far as I have in this past year.
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.
I don’t know what it is–maybe it’s the new year–but I’ve been in a mood this week.
And that mood has been decidedly good.
I’ve really been “feelin’ myself,” as the young folks might say. What exactly does that mean, you might ask? Well, according to the Urban Dictionary:
Yep, that really does sum it up. I went back to work in the office yesterday, and it felt SO good to be back. I love my job, and I love my coworkers, so I really missed being in the office every day with them. And they all welcomed me back so warmly–the day was like one big warm fuzzy.
And on top of that, I missed having that nice, normal routine of getting up and leaving the house to do something every day. It just felt so nice to get back to something that feels so familiar.
I’m also starting to embrace my growing-in hair. I’m honestly just grateful to have enough to cover my scalp, but beyond that, I’m actually starting to get into the look. And it helps that I’ve gotten lots of compliments on my hair from my very kind coworkers. While the wig I wore before more closely resembled my old hair, it never looked or felt right to me–something about it was just off. What I’m rocking now is MINE, and while it doesn’t look like what I had before, it looks right because it’s me.
Physically, I’m still recovering from surgery, but I feel so much better and have my next surgery planned, so I have a timeline for when I’m going to look more “normal.” My body is still pretty rough, but I’m coming to terms with it and looking for fabulous new clothes to cover it (any excuse to shop!).
So, if you see me walking around these days, you might notice I have a little more pep in my step. It’s because it’s 2017, and I’m feelin’ myself in the new year. I hope you are, too!
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