Last year my friend and I went to a book reading at the Wendy Williamson Theatre on the University of Alaska’s Anchorage campus. The audience was predominantly female, and, as the auditorium filled, we looked from our upper-level seats out over a variety of coiffed heads: permed hair, straight hair, short hair, long hair, all silhouetted against the bright lights of the stage. I leaned over to Mary and said, “Look at all that hair!” She laughed sympathetically. I sighed with a rueful smile because, under my wig, I was bald.
I began losing my hair in the first week of May last year, about 10 days after my first bout of chemotherapy, about 20 days after I was diagnosed with Burkitt-like lymphoma. This relatively rare cancer can pop up anywhere in the body. There’s no known cause. In my case, it was the lymphatic cells on my ovaries that decided to stage their own little revolution. While I was working and skiing and doing all my normal things in early 2006, these rebel cells were organizing themselves into some trophy-class tumors.
By the end of March I began to feel, as the doctors say, “abdominal discomfort.” I went to see Jennifer, the nurse practitioner who is my long-time gynecological caregiver. She suspected an ovarian mass and sent me for an ultrasound. Then I got the phone message no one wants to hear: “Please return to our office at once for a consultation.” When I arrived, Jennifer placed her hand on my knee and said, “Sharen, there’s no easy way to say this. It looks bad. It looks like cancer.” I paused, turned the news over in my mind for a moment, then took a deep breath and asked, “Well, what do we do next?” A sonogram and a CT scan followed; by April 10 I was in surgery.
This particular rare cancer is, to quote my surgeon, “exquisitely susceptible to chemotherapy.” My oncologist explained that if I put up with a summer of nasty chemo, my odds were quite good for a remission and, eventually, a cure. I was lucky, he said. Lucky? To have cancer? This is the paradox: I do feel truly blessed to have a case of Burkitt-like lymphoma because they can cure it.
Of all the difficult things I had to do, like telling my loved ones that I had cancer, anticipating surgery and chemo and side effects, postponing my wedding, redoing my will and planning for loss of income, of all those things, the idea of losing my hair was one of the hardest to accept. Vanity, vanity: I know it’s a nasty sin, but, damn it, I liked my hair, and I resented the hell out of the fact that I had to lose it.
Well, okay then, if this was going to happen without my consent the least I could do was prepare for it. I went to the hairdresser a few days before chemo and had my long red hair cut short. I had new eyebrows tattooed on. I smiled, I laughed. I cooed inanities like “Oh, it’s nothing!” and “It’s a small price to pay for a chance at a cure.” I made arrangements with my stylist to follow up with a “shave job” later, after the main fallout. I was one organized cancer patient.
Unfortunately, my hair did not pay attention to my appointment schedule. It began to fall out while I was in the hospital for the first of several infections one can get when one’s immune system is compromised by chemo. I was in the bathroom washing up and, as I have done a million times in my life, pulled my comb through my hair. This time, in one stroke, the comb was completely full. I stared at it for a long, long while. Then I emptied the comb and tried again, thinking that this time things would be normal. Again, a comb full of hair.
Of all things, I began thinking of my daughter’s dog, Shadow. Shadow, a husky-lab mix, sheds twice a year, in November and June. Why November, I do not know, though we always speculated that it was because the heat was on in the house all the time by then. When you pet a shedding Shadow, your hand comes away full of black hair. So I stood in that hospital bathroom, with the disinfectant soap dispenser and the complimentary pink plastic tub full of Kleenex, lotion, toothpaste and shampoo, and thought of Shadow.
I scoff at hair loss!
The fallout continued over the next few days. The worst part was that I was in an isolation room in the hospital and had no control over the damn process. I couldn’t take a shower to wash my hair off because the incision from my cancer surgery hadn’t healed yet. I couldn’t see a hairdresser because I couldn’t leave my room. Soon there was hair all over my pillow and my pajamas. I would reach up to tuck a wayward tuft behind my ear, and it would come away in my hand. After a day or so I took a sort of perverse pleasure in it, purposefully pulling pieces off when one of my five sisters or two brothers was visiting, just to see their reaction, and laughing like it didn’t really matter to me because I was one tough little cancer patient. Hair loss was nothing, a minor thing when chemo is bringing you a chance at a cure. Hair loss? I scoff at hair loss!
But within about three days, all I could do was stare at the woman in the mirror above the sink in Room 551 at Alaska Regional Hospital and wonder why some lady who looked like she belonged in a Mad Max movie was staring back at me. Stubborn wisps hung on here and there, but my scalp was showing through all over the place. My God, I looked like a war victim. I looked like Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I looked like a balding man desperately hanging on to a comb-over. My spirits sank with every hair that fell into that sink. It was becoming awfully difficult to keep smiling and joking about it.
That evening, two of my sisters, Karen and Marilyn, visited. They’re both nurses and are comfortable in the hospital environment. They trooped in and announced that they were going to haul me into the bathroom and help me take a certified nurse-assisted partial shower. I cannot tell you how wonderful that felt: warm water pouring over my tired old scalp, tired old hair letting go and getting out of my way. Though I looked even balder, I felt immensely better. Next came a beautiful silk scarf. I was, in an instant, a fashionable patient.
After Karen settled me back in bed, Marilyn presented a large cardboard box filled with wig samples. She then disappeared into the restroom and emerged in a Jackie O model that was just too hilarious. Marilyn had it all down: the walk, the pursed lips, the wave of the hand. She sashayed out and came back in wearing a short, flippy thing, looking something like a Doublemint Twin. By the time she pranced across the room, executed a runway turn and back again, Karen and I were in stitches.
The show continued for about an hour, style after style, campy move after sultry strut, until all the samples had been paraded. In spite of myself, I was smiling again, and I’d even selected one of the wigs as a possible fit for me. Thus, two women, with whom I had fought furiously when we were teens, had performed the most loving of gestures this night. They had given me a hand up out of the cancer world, showing me that hair was easily replaced. I could wake up the next day ready to scoff again, to laugh at the face of the cancer and to get back into the fight.
A day or two later I asked Jason, a certified nurse assistant at the hospital, about shaving my head. Jason kept his own head shaved, as so many young guys do these days, and he told me it was easy to do. He offered right away to help me if I got the okay from my doctor—you have to be careful because of the possibility of nicks and cuts and infections. Permission was secured, and later that day Jason gently helped me shave my head. There was no embarrassment, only relief that the war refugee look was gone. We decided I had a beautifully shaped head and could pass for a science fiction movie star.
I spent two weeks in the hospital that trip, arriving home the day before Mother’s Day. What a wonderful feeling to be looking out of my own windows again. My kids and their spouses arrived on Sunday to cook dinner for me as a Mother’s Day gift, bringing my three grandkids as a party bonus. The two little ones, each only 4 months old, experienced baldness as a natural state of affairs, but Keller, at 2½, doesn’t miss a thing. I wondered how to explain things to him and finally decided to tell him straight out.
When Keller arrived I was sitting in my big easy chair, wearing a baseball cap.
“Hi Granny Sharen Annie!”
“Did you know I got a haircut?”
He nodded, wide-eyed.
“Did you know I have no hair?”
Another nod, skeptical but curious, eyeing my cap.
“Would you like to see it?”
I lifted off the cap, bald as could be. He looked at me thoughtfully.
“Would you like to feel it?”
He reached out, gave my head a tentative pat, then pulled his hand back to his chest and announced matter-of-factly, with a shy smile, “You have no hair.”
“Nope, I have no hair.”
One more thoughtful look, then he went past my chair to play with his cars.
He stopped by my chair a few more times that evening, reminded me, “You have no hair,” and went on about his play. By the end of the evening, it was clear that this was a new normal for him but not a big deal.
That’s how I eventually came to terms with this cancer. I just dealt with the new normal, handling the details one by one. I told my family, I re-did my will, I had surgery, I had chemo, I lost my hair. And on June 16 of that momentous year, my fiancé, Doug, and I were married in a small ceremony at home. The bride wore something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and a wig. The next week she went back to chemotherapy. She and the groom intend to live happily ever after.
Sharen Walsh-Webster is a project manager and engineer for the Municipality of Anchorage. She and her husband, Douglas, divide their time between their homes in Anchorage and Girdwood, Alaska. After her cancer treatments were completed last fall, the couple competed in the downhill skiing town league race series. Both earned silver medals in their respective classes.