There are a lot of posts rattling around in my mind right now because every day seems to be the one year anniversary of something scary from the beginning stages of my cancer journey, but I had to finally put this post into words tonight because I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I have always cared about my appearance and I have always liked to look or dress nice, but I didn’t realize what a difference it made until I was about 18. Right about the time I graduated from high school, I started to realize that people treated me differently when I was dressed down, in comparison to when I was dressed up. So beyond the hours that I spent working at a local daycare, I almost exclusively dressed like a business professional at the age of 17-18. To the point that most people that met me actually thought I was, or at least thought that I was older and more mature. I kept this up all the way through college and even early on into my career. Actually I think I kept it up until I turned 30, and it hit me that it was now better to try to look younger and more hip. However, I still have a love for business attire and I have never forgotten the difference in how people treated me when I was dressed like a professional rather then a student. I just didn’t realize that the entire notion would come back into play for me again later in life…. Just in a very different way.
I had my head shaved on May 1st of last year, just 4 days after my first round of chemo. I was told that my hair wouldn’t fall out for 10-12 days, but I wanted to make sure I could donate it to Children With Hair Loss, and to be honest, I kind of just wanted to rip the bandaid off and get it over with, rather then waiting and watching it fall out strand by strand. It took a little while, but I officially lost all ….. or well most of my hair about 17 days after my first round of chemo, so I was well into my second round of chemo. I still remember looking at my hands after washing my hair in the shower. They tell you that the chemo will make your hair fall out, but they don’t exactly prepare you for how quickly it happens once it starts. I woke with hair, and got in the shower on that warm spring morning in May, but after scrubbing my head with shampoo, I looked down at my hands to see piles and piles of hair. I remember pausing… and thinking don’t touch your head again…. And then realizing this was it. It was really happening and there was no going back. After staring my fallen hair as it ran down the shower drain, I took matters into my own hands. And grabbed the shampoo. I vigorously washed my hair over and over in an atrempt to get it all out so I didn’t have to see myself with missing patches. We were still in the midst of a remodel at the time, so there wasn’t a mirror for me to look in when I got out of the shower. I remember giving myself a pep talk before walking out of the bathroom because I knew someone was going to see me before I had the chance to see myself. The look on my moms face as I came walking out of the bathroom, said it all. It was NOT pretty. After spending a good 45 minutes rolling a lint roller over my head to at least even the loss out, it hit me that I officially looked like a cancer patient and it wasn’t a look that I wanted to share with everyone that saw me.
In the days leading up to this drastic appearance change, I tried on tons of pre-made chemo hats and scarfs and my awesome sister Kate actually took me wig shopping and surprised me with a wig that looked a lot like my natural hair as well as a few hats. However I had some awful leftovers. I did go completely bald for quite a while actually I don’t think I went totally bald until after my last chemo and my doctors strongly urged me not to shave it down for fear that I would again prove to be that .1% that gets any and all possible infections. So I dealt with the leftovers. I was armed with head covering options when my hair officially fell out, and they were really adorable, but none of them felt like “me”. As much as I wanted to pretend this wasn’t happening to me, losing my hair made it real for me, and for everyone around me. The obvious truth is, that it was and still is happening to me. When you are faced with something like this, you don’t have a choice. Everything about your appearance is going to change and it’s going to change quickly. All of a sudden you no longer recognize the person you see standing in the mirror. You can fight it for as long as you like, but it really is out of your control. You will wake up one day and officially look like you have cancer. Yes, your hair is gone, but there are so many other changes as well. Your eyes are dark and sunken, your frame is thinner and frail looking, and your completion seems very pale or even yellow. In my case I also had really bad dry and watery eyes so I not only looked very sick, but I also looked like I was a constant emotional wreck because I was always wiping my eyes. I couldn’t keep eye makeup on no matter how hard i tried and I was eventually told to stop trying to wear eye makeup all together because it was making my eyes even more irritated. This was almost harder then losing my hair. I just plain…. looked sick and there was nothing I could do to try to cover it up. The truth is I was sick. I knew I had to accept each change and try to continuously find even the smallest pieces of myself with each phase of my physical transformation and hold onto them as tight as I could. I remember walking past pre-cancer photos of myself that are hanging in our home and thinking “oh my gosh I don’t even know that girl anymore”, but then also seeing a photo of me without hair and thinking “wow that doesn’t look like me either”. It was like I didn’t resonate with any version of myself. I was almost identity-less. But the hardest part for me was the fact that I could no longer hide what was happening to me. I have dealt with other, far-less severe, health conditions over the past 6 years, but I was always able to hide how bad I was actually feeling. That was not usually the case this past year. I realized that I had to face what was happening to me and and actually accept that the sick cancer patient that I was looking at in the mirror, was “me”. Accepting that was step number one.
Although I never really thought I would wear my wig everyday, I did plan to wear it to client meetings, shooting engagements, and the weddings that we photographing because I didn’t want to call attention to my chemo look. However wearing the wig was hot, itching, and most of all, it made me feel like I was trying too hard to be someone that I wasn’t. So I didn’t wear it as much as I thought I would. Early on, I realized that actual pre-made chemo head ware didn’t fit my small head, so I had to get creative. I played with my neck scarfs until I perfected a way to tie them for myself. Before I knew it, the scarf look, became “me”. When I looked in the mirror I saw myself at this stage of my life and I started to again know who I was and even like the person I was seeing in the mirror. The truth is; you can plan all you like, but you really won’t know what you’re going to do with your new bald head until you have it. I was always inspired by those who walked around with nothing on their heads and secretly I wished that I felt comfortable enough to to rock the “bald” look other then around my house and neighborhood, but not all of my hair fell out like the beautifully bald women I was seeing at Lemmen Holton, so instead I embraced the scarf look and the occasional ball cap on hot days. In some ways it was a stylish accessory but it also protected my head from the hot sun, and it was quite breathable so it didn’t bother me to wear one when I was out shooting photos this past summer. The best part about the scarf is it was a little different they what all of my fellow cancer fighters were wearing so I literally got and still get compliments on how beautiful I look in my scarf every single day I wear one. Everyone asks where they can find one and wants me to show them how to tie them which built my confidence and put me more at ease with my newly sickened cancer look. It took some time to get used to having people notice that I looked sick, that I didn’t have hair, brows, or lashes or even that I looked like I was continuously crying, but eventually I got comfortable with “me” in that moment and I no longer even noticed the people that I knew were staring with their sad cancer eyes and thinking “oh that poor girl… she’s so young.” I understood because I had been on that side of the fence too. They couldn’t help themselves and I didn’t take offense too it. Honestly after the scarf made me feel confident, pretty, and best of all made me feel like “me” again, I wasn’t bothered by random cancer questions from strangers or even small children pointing out that I didn’t have any hair to their parents.
I had conquered drastic body changes with the loss of my breasts and eventually the loss of my right tissue expander with very few emotional side effects, I have even accepted and embraced that fact I will only have one boob… correction I will only have one “foob” for a while, and I have accepted that my long hair is gone and will not be back for quite some time. With the scarf on, I don’t feel like I get those sad cancer eyes, because what I hear everyday is how well I wear the scarf and how beautiful I look with it on. It’s like that one lip stick you try to make work with every outfit because you were told the color is perfect for your skin tone.
I am thankful that although this is a long process, it is also temporary. Ever since the day we shaved my head, I have made remarks about how I cannot wait to have my hair back, but I never really thought about how long it is actually going to take to get “my” mid-length hair back. Once you see it gone, you realize that although my 3 year old thinks this is the case, I will not wake up one morning with long hair. I have to go through the awkward growing out stage just like every one year old out there… which is scary in itself. Come on, you all know how awful that scary fem-u-mullet looks on even the cutest of one year old girls. It’s this process that makes me want to hold on to my safe and pretty scarf with I all have in me. I know the timing is different for everyone, but I didn’t see ANY growth on my head until 12 weeks past my last round of chemo, and it has been a slow growing process ever since. I sport my little buzz cut around the house and around friends and family, but I usually still cover it when I’m going out for the day or when I’m freezing my butt off on these cold winter days.
I wouldn’t say I’m hiding behind my scarf, because I have posted several photos of what it looks like for all of you over the past few months, however I do still feel prettier and much warmer in the scarf and I actually think I will until my hair reaches a length that looks like more of an intentional haircut to me. Over the past month or so I have had a lot of people say… “ditch the scarf and rock that short cut! You have the perfect head for it.” Some have even hinted that I may be hiding behind the scarf, but the truth is that there is a lot more to it then that, or at least there is when it comes to me. Yes I was hiding my bald head in the beginning, but the scarf did a lot more for me, then just hide and keep my head warm. I am a very strong, determined, and driven woman and I think those qualities have only doubled in strength over the past year, however, underneath my confident smile, is someone just as sensitive and vulnerable as anyone else. This year has done a lot of positive things for my confidence, but under it all I am still a woman and as we know, we women CARE far too much about what we look like on the outside, how others view us, and most importantly how we feel because of what we look like and what others think when they see us. As silly as it sounds it effects so much of how you are, how you act, and how you feel in the public eye. Now that my hair is getting a little longer I have started venturing out without a scarf here and there at the request of my OT therapist Amy and those who are dying to see my hair growth. My OT has been through this twice and she is right. It is somewhat freeing to have nothing on my head…. But it is also a bit cold and scary at the same time. Taking the scarf off here and there over the past few weeks has made me realize why I liked wearing it in the first place. When I go out without it, I again get lots of looks or even stares from people in public. I don’t know what they are thinking but I find myself wanting to design a shirt that says “No I did not choose this hair length, I lost my hair while kicking cancer’s ass, just as a disclaimer. I got used to getting compliments about my scarfs so now that I’m walking around without it at times, I get far more stares and looks then I do compliments. Because nothing is being said, I of course make up what I think people are thinking in my mind which I’m sure is typically way worse. The truth is, it doesn’t matter what they are actually thinking. The fact that they are looking at me makes these thoughts run through my mind, and shifts my confidence ever so slightly…. ok I lie, It shifts my confidence dramatically. All of a sudden I feel very hypersensitive and insecure, just as I did the in my first days without hair and it becomes all I can think about or focus on when I’m walking around in public. I no longer feel strong, confident and brave, I now feel insecure and intimidated. I actually had someone approach me in a store over the weekend to say something that has nothing to do with any of this, but I didn’t even really hear the words that were coming out of her mouth, instead I was watching their eyes trace from my mouth to my hair and I was wondering what she was thinking. That’s when it occurred to me that my scarf look is my “18 year old” dressy outfit. Something as simple as wearing a head scarf covers up an insecurity for me, and gives me the ability to walk around both bravely and confidently where going without a scarf and exposing something that I am insecure about almost exposes a weakness, elevates all of my insecurities and makes me feel on edge.
This realization has fueled this post. The very hard truth is that there are so many things about a cancer journey that are awful, but what’s sometimes ever harder to deal with us that there are even more aspects about a cancer journey that are out of your control. I have no control over the drastic physical changes that have and are happening to me, but I have continuously tried to adapt and keep moving forward. I found a stylish accessory that not only helped me to regain my confidence but also helped me to feel like myself again. It may not have happened over night but I found a way to be comfortable in my own skin while I was going through the hardest year of my life and I think that is a pretty big feat in itself. Some women can rock bald like my late friend Ann and my amazing friend Liz, some women prefer real looking wigs, and some women would rather wear a stylish cap or scarf. After this past year I have realized that it really doesn’t matter how you wear your “cancer”. If you are bravely going bald, if you are sporting a wig, a scarf or a cap and you are looking cancer in the eye by proudly walking around during your darkest days…. You are BRAVE, you are STRONG, you are INSPIRING, and most importantly….YOU ARE WINNING half the battle by NOT letting cancer get and keep you down. A lot of feelings, fears, emotions, and thoughts will almost paralyze you at different moments during your fight with cancer and your battle for your life, but by finding your own light in that scary dark tunnel you are m, in a sense, taking back some of the control that was lost with your diagnosis, and you are standing up to this awful disease. A lot is thrown at you and a lot is taken from you in those first months or ever those first few years. So I say… if something as simple as a hat, a wig or a scarf gives you the confidence you need to keep moving forward…. By all means wear it and wear it proudly!
I am currently in the transition phase myself and I truly believe that I have to be 100% ready to fully makes this transition or it’s going to be even harder on me, but I will admit that writing this post has already helped more then I could ever put into words. Over the past month the thought of taking the suggestion to ditch the scarf has been a constant battle in my mind because although I love the scarf, I also really hate that someone may be thinking that I am hiding behind it. I will be totally honest here, I am slowly gaining the courage to introduce the new “Tammy” to the world full time, but I am also not quite ready to say goodbye to the scarf 100 percent. There are days that I feel empowered and ready to embrace my new look, so I steal my husbands hair product and I try to “rock the short cut” as I am encouraged to do, but there are also days that I just feel better with my post cancer hair covered with a pretty scarf or days that are just plain too darn cold to walk around without anything on my head. If you see me walking around in a head scarf, just know that I needed that extra layer of comfort and confidence that day and if you see me walking and with a short cut, know that I’m stepping outside of my comfort zone and challenging myself to embrace the “transition version” of myself. Either way, I’ll get there eventually and I’m ok with that.
For those of you who have been dying to see my new growth…. here are a few photos of my newly shaped post-chemo fuzz and because I’m a visual person, I also had to do a very quickly thrown together visual of the teeshirt I wish I had on when I’m getting looks in public.
A big thanks to my stylist Adrianne for turning my awful chemo fuzz into the cut that is slowly giving me the confidence to embrace the new me (even if it’s little by little). Adrienne, get ready because we are going to try some pretty fun hair styles during this long “growing in” process. I guess that’s one thing to look forward too and it’s something I would have never done if I hadn’t lost my hair to cancer, right?
#mypersonalpinktime #postchemocuts #kickingcancersass