In the three-ish weeks between my cancer diagnosis and the start of my chemotherapy, one of my sudden preoccupations was hair. Maybe not so sudden, since for years I’ve enjoyed trying different hairstyles and products, searching for inspiration on Pinterest and reading articles on the Curly Girl Method and microfiber towels. But now I was obsessed with finding new ideas for short hairstyles, head wraps, and chemo scalp care. Nothing about my hair was changing yet, but I decided I needed to change it. I knew it would be falling out soon, at least somewhat, and I couldn’t stomach the thought of my thick shoulder-length falling out in clumps. I’m sure I also wanted to mark the change in my sickness and take control of some part of my body. So I went to a salon in Roland Park and got my hair chopped off into a pixie cut.
I had never before felt confident enough in my face to go for such short hair. When I was overweight before, I tried to grow my hair longer or style it fuller, to cover some of the chub in my cheeks and chin. But cancer sucked all that chub away and I found, almost overnight, a much thinner face in the mirror. In fact, in those early weeks when I was getting my port, preparing for chemo, and still dealing with a lot of pain and nausea, I was so dehydrated much of the time that my skin stretched dryly over my jaw, parched and sunken. I knew I looked unhealthy, but I still felt newly beautiful. Thank you, society.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that I loved having short hair. It was so much easier to clean and style, and everything about it just felt effortless and cute. I got used to it pretty quickly, even though I’d always had a habit of twirling bits of my hair around my fingers when I was bored or deep in thought. Short hair was easy, it was comfortable, and it helped me fear my inevitable hair loss less. It worked for me, and it worked really well.
Until it didn’t. Probably four weeks into my chemo, my hair started to change. My scalp got tingly and sensitive, always feeling like I was pressing a cowlick the wrong way, or like I had raging hat hair. A new forest of flyaway hairs sprouted all over my head, like Seussian fluff waving in the breeze. Combing my hair was dangerous, and showers became agonizing. No matter how careful I tried to be washing my hair in the shower, I started losing multiple fistfuls of hair every time. My growing collections of fallen hair on the bathtub rim, and the thick coating all over my palms every time I ran my hands over my head, sickened me. I wasted water just standing in the shower, trying to clean up this tremendous loss. When my hair was dry, it shed constantly, and I had to grab handfuls of flyaway hairs off the sides of my head, to avoid looking like a demented clown. The volume of loss was startling. It was all too visceral.
One day, after another soul crushing shower, I spontaneously buzzed my hair all the way down. I had stepped out of the shower and tried to comb what was left on the crown of my head into some respectable comb over, and got so incredibly sick of it. I pulled out my husband’s Wahl trimmer and the number four attachment, and stared hard into the mirror. Suddenly nervous, I pulled up the YouTube app on my phone and searched for helpful videos. There are actually a huge number of YouTube videos of women buzz cutting their hair, as tutorials or triumphant celebration videos. I watched parts of a few to get the general idea of the best technique (try to do it evenly, in sections, but you can always go back and clean it up), and to get pumped up for my own impending triumph. My heart racing and my hands slightly shaky (although they almost always are, because of my diabetes), I looked myself straight in the eye and buzzed down the center of my head. That first pass was exhilarating, maybe even a revelation. It taught me that I can do something brash and reckless, and that I don’t have to let my illness just make me sad. It also taught me that lady buzz cuts are kind of sexy.
I trimmed and trimmed my hair, shaving off the clumpy mess and carving a patchy field of sparse red tufts. I worked until I was almost late for my acupuncture appointment, then threw on one of the polyester turbans I had just ordered from Amazon and ran out the door. Arriving a bit out-of-breath and frenzied, I told my acupuncturist what I had just done, and pulled the cap off to show her. She complimented the new cut, but I think even if she hadn’t, I would still have felt beautiful and powerful, and least for that triumphant day.