It’s Thursday afternoon. I walk into the hair salon, scarf in my bag. Everywhere I look I see hair, which I guess is expected at a hair salon. Some people are getting haircuts and others are experimenting with different hair colors and hairstyles. It seems like an endless process dealing with our hair. Well, almost.
Today, after what seemed like a very long time, I had an appointment at the hair salon. But this time it was different. I wasn’t there to change my hair color or get a haircut. I was there to have my head shaved. My last chemotherapy proved to be unfriendly to my hair, which started falling out in clumps a couple of days ago. But since it is my fourth chemo, it is now routine for me: my hair starts to fall out – I visit the hair salon – they shave my head – I wear my scarf and off I go. As simple as that.
“It’s just hair it’ll grow back in no time,” my doctors have always told me since I got diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a type of childhood bone cancer.
At the hair salon, I give my name to the reception lady and she shows me to a chair. I sit down and tell the hairdresser that I came in today to shave my head, because chemo will make it fall out sooner or later.
“Do you want to shave it all off?” she tells me with a rather startled look on her face.
I nod with confidence; she takes out the shaving machine and turns it on. I hear its buzzing sound, take a deep breath and tell myself, “It’s just hair.” But to my surprise she suddenly stops, turns the machine off and says:
“I can’t do it. I am a cancer survivor myself and I just can’t bear the thought of you shaving your head. Who knows maybe chemo won’t make it fall out. In any case, it is already very short, so I will just trim it and we might be able to prevent it from falling.” She is very persistent and tries to convince me to hold off of this act she finds despicable.
Why on earth would someone try to save my hair? It’s literally, well, hair. One day it’s there, the next it’s not, and at the end it grows back. As I was trying to figure out the reason why she was so persistent, she utters a phrase that I will never forget:
“When I was in your shoes, several months ago, I didn’t feel comfortable leaving my house most of the time. I got a leave of absence from my job to avoid people staring at me with pity and curiosity. And of course I didn’t share my condition with people, except with my family and a few close friends.”
I heard each and every word she said and although I had a very different perspective on the issue, I didn’t have the courage to speak up. It’s very hard for me to understand why someone would have to feel that way. I thought that cancer and other chronic illnesses stopped being taboo a long time ago. But apparently I was wrong. Many people struck by such a disease believe that they should interrupt their lives, freeze time and hide in a bubble, far from everyone and everything until they get well.
The hairdresser’s words have been haunting my thoughts since the day I heard them. It is those words that made me realize how important it is for me to share my story and perspective on life with cancer.
Because hair or no hair, at the end of the day I am the same person, my identity is intact. Cancer is part of my life, but it is not the thing that defines me. It doesn’t affect the way I act or feel about myself. It’s a disease that became part of my life without my permission, and while it influences my life, it doesn’t shape it. Life does not end with the diagnosis and shouldn’t become reduced down to hospital visits, doctors’ appointments, IV drugs and endless blood tests. Life goes on and it’s in our power to continue living it ridding ourselves of all taboos and prejudices.
It’s Thursday afternoon. I get out of the hair salon and for the first time I am not wearing my scarf. Not because I managed to “save” my hair, but because I am not afraid of losing it.
Thank you for what you have written. I am so glad that your father forwarded it to me . I have been following your progress from a distance since you were diagnosed and it is great to see your progress and your positive attitude
Thank you. I hope you enjoyed it. Let’s all try to make cancer less of a taboo!
I’m in awed of your bravery. Your article is so powerful. Thank you for sharing.