Mom had cancer when I was in preschool. Breast cancer. Four-year-olds shouldn’t have to think about much beyond counting by ones and coloring inside the lines. But cancer doesn’t care about what kids are learning. Cancer counts by the thousands, and colors outside any margins it wants.
Mom never really felt sick during her treatment, and she didn’t seem to mind the radiation. I imagine now that there were plenty of nights where she cried herself to sleep, though. Cancer is brutal. I remember seeing a picture of my mom when she was in college and she had long, dark hair, but it wasn’t thick; just wavy. I think she told me that she cut it short before she and my dad got married in 1983. I’ve seen pictures of her holding me and my sister Rebecca as newborns and her hair was short and curly. She was smiling. After she got cancer it never grew back in quite the same way, but in the pictures where she was bald, she still had the same smile.
Mom lost her hair after she started radiation. Cancer reduced her curly brown locks to peach fuzz in barely-there patches. Clumps of it fell out in her shower, and I think she was embarrassed. Anybody would be, really. Losing all of it would a shock, regardless of how important they thought hair was. I was nervous to take part in the “shaving party” that we hosted for close friends and family. I guess losing her hair was the next step in Mom’s journey to fighting cancer and my family wanted to remember. Maybe, somehow, we made that process a little easier for her, too.
Dad buzzed the first strip of Mom’s hair before handing the electric trimmer to one of us girls. The clippers were too big for my four-year-old hands. They nearly buzzed out of my grasp. I was scared I was going to hurt Mom. I remember almost dropping them. I can’t remember if I shaved off a piece of Mom’s hair or not. I didn’t know what she would look like. Would Mom look like Mom anymore? How would the hair grow back? It turns out that she looked beautiful because she was still smiling. I didn’t know this until many years later when I could appreciate the fact that my Mom survived cancer. Sure, I was happy that she was still around, but at four years old, I didn’t understand. We tried to shop for wigs after the “party” but not only were they too expensive, Mom said the wigs were hot, heavy, and itchy. She preferred to wear a bright white, wide brim sun hat or a pale pink turban.
Even if she didn’t like being bald, Mom handled it well. She’s kept it short ever since. It’s thinner now, flatter against her head and I think, but can’t know for sure, that after the cancer it was easier for her hair to turn gray. Maybe it is just because she’s raised three girls to adulthood. I help her dye her hair now. Contrary to the belief that a mother has eyes in the back of her head to watch over her children, she does not have eyes in the back of her head to help dye her own hair. The hair dye smells bad, like something died in the bathroom, but I don’t mind because, every once in a while, I get to spend 20 minutes alone with Mom.
Because my sisters and I were so little when Mom got cancer, and Dad had to keep working to pay hospital bills and keep food on the table, we went to Mom’s radiation appointments with her. The radiation oncologists were some of the nicest people I had ever encountered in my short life. One woman grew out her finger nails and painted fun designs on them to show us when we “came to visit.” We held out our skinny chicken arms and she danced her nails from our fingertips to our shoulders, running like a spider. We laughed and laughed. I am happy now that she diffused the tension. I remember she saved us homemade cookies with shaved coconut and caramel so that we could be occupied for a few minutes while they set Mom up in the next room. I hated coconut but I didn’t know how to say “no” to an adult yet. I thought coconut tasted like wax. I still hate it. During treatment, Mom rested on a table, clad in a paper robe (to preserve her modesty) with little red dots mapping out her body, targeting the cancer cells. I remember trying to stand on my tip toes to see into the monitor to watch what was happening. I think that was before we had to shave her hair off. Beyond that, the memory goes black.
I can’t imagine what not having hair feels like and I don’t think, even if I asked Mom, she would be able to tell me. Radiation and chemotherapy don’t just take the hair on someone’s head off. Some people lose their eyebrows, their arm and leg hair, or even their eyelashes and nose hairs. If I had to guess, I’d say that losing all of my hair to cancer would feel very drafty.
Growing up, my sisters and I were all hair. In our home, strands of hair stuck to the backs of couches and chairs. Long pieces wrapped around the vacuum cleaner and the shower drain. Countless bobby pins and thick broken hair elastics committed “suicide”, as Dad would say, from the tops of our dressers. He brushed our hair of “dirty” blonde, copper brown, and chocolate brown shades into ponytails and pigtail braids that were later used to ride the “ponies” or drive the “motorcycles”, complete with theatrical movements and sound effects. We liked having our hair played with. When we were little, Mom or Dad always brushed our hair after bath time. When we asked nicely, they would float the hair dryer underneath our half-dried manes and we’d giggle as it flew in all different directions behind our ears. Between haircuts, Dad sat me and Rebecca on his bathroom counter and stared at the space between our eyebrows and carefully snipped the ends of our bangs off. Little snowflakes of our brown hair fell into our lap and the sink. Sometimes, I think he cut them too short.
Liz and Rebecca donated their hair when we were all still young. Liz made her first donation when she was in fifth grade, and Rebecca followed a few years later. I never asked them why they decided to cut it off, but I don’t think they were growing their hair out just to donate it. They both liked to have long hair as far as I could tell. The salon that always cut our hair promised free haircuts for people who wanted to donate their hair to kids with cancer. They worked with Locks of Love for many years and sent the thick chopped ponytails in padded, sealed envelopes after they were sawed off with cutting shears. Our favorite line to hear when we all went to get our haircuts was, “Wow, you have so much hair!” I think it made us feel special. We were all proud of our long, healthy hair. I don’t know what it was about donating hair, but I was scared to do it. When I was little, I liked my long hair. I didn’t think I could pull off the big chop.
Liz and Rebecca continued to grow out their hair through high school, but they always cut it before it was long enough to donate again. I think they both look better with asymmetrical and pixie hairstyles anyway. Neither of them are skilled (like me) at styling long hair behind their heads and they get easily tired with the same hairstyle. Now, we’re growing out our hair for Liz’s July wedding. This waiting game is annoying, but we all have plans to make big chops after the wedding celebration. I also think they’re better at handling change than I am. I’ve grown attached to my hair and it’s hard to let go sometimes.
The summer after I turned seventeen, I wanted to grow my hair out very specifically to donate it to Locks of Love. It was time for a change. Our family-tested, tried and true Great Clips salon once again marveled at how much hair I had and were less than thrilled when I told them that I wanted to donate it instead of just getting a trim like usual. It must be extra work for them to chop it all off in ponytails. That day, the salon felt fresh. It smelled of soft powder, mists of hair care fragrance, and the sharp scent of new beginnings. I knew then that what I was about to do was the right decision. I was nervous. The stylist wove my hair into two 2-inch-thick pigtail braids that ran the length of my back and secured them tightly with elastics. Scrape, snip, scrape went the steel blade sheers in their back and forth struggle, sawing off my beautiful hair that grew for more than five years. They wrapped my hair in a plastic bag and sent it off in an envelope. Three weeks later, Locks of Love got my donation.
In a way, Mom’s cancer is helping to save our lives. Things I now think about that I didn’t have to think about when I was in preschool: What kind of life am I living? As a young adult. I think about cancer a lot. Maybe even too much. I worry all the time. What if she relapses? What if I get cancer before I even start getting mammograms? I don’t even want to think about leaving my family. Will I lose my hair? Can I survive something like cancer? I am preparing myself for someday having to take this journey myself. Cancer is a beast that I would never wish on anyone.
Often, I think about what I would look like without hair. I know that there would be scars and bumps on my head from when I had brain surgery as a premature newborn, but I cannot picture what I would look like without hair. I love my hair. Sometimes I even think about if I should be unfortunate enough to get cancer that I would shave my head before chemotherapy started. Not just chopping off ponytails, but tying little clumps of my hair into bundles and shaving my head down to the scalp. So far in my life, my healthy, brown hair has been a part of me. Sometimes it is the only thing people see to tell me apart from Rebecca. I cannot imagine wearing someone else’s hair on my head when I have none of my own. I would have an identity crisis at some point. Mom still dyes her hair to look nice, but I don’t think she likes her as much as I like mine.
Cancer didn’t take everything away from my mom. While she did have to go through hard months of chemotherapy and radiation, she still had her little kiddos to hug at night and a warm meal at the end of the day. While she lost all her hair and never wanted to paint her brittle finger nails again, she still enjoyed playing with our hair and giving us mini-manicures. My mother still had her sense of humor—making the best out of the situation and trying to keep everyone from worrying about her. Today, she is just as strong as she was before.
Cancer took away a small part of her body and all of her hair but she lived. She is living. And at least for now, I can choose to lose my hair and honor her.