Part 7 – A Look Back at my Cancer Journey – Blood work, balding and other business

(Adapted from journal entries and an article written 11 years ago – May 2006. I never thought I’d be shopping for hair one day, and it’s the weirdest experience to pull handfuls of hair out of your head without feeling a thing.  The good news is that I’m halfway through treatments and my blood counts are back in the normal range. WooHOOO!)


Tuesday, May 23, 2006
Chances are you don’t have a wig lying around your house. That is, unless you frequent costume parties, or have small children with an elaborate dress-up collection. I’d had fun donning one or two for dramatic theatre presentations, but certainly had never purchased one.


When my cancer treatment started, I was told that my hair probably wouldn’t fall out, just thin a bit. No big deal. However, about 10 days after receiving mytomycin through my chemo port, my scalp felt like I’d been dragged around by a pony tail. It itched, ached, and felt tender to the touch. It almost gave me a headache. Then I started shedding like an old barn cat. Running my hands through my hair resulted in what looked like a clump of dead brown spaghetti — between my fingers, on my lap, on the floor, on the couch. Hubby Tim was sure this was just the thinning. I had plenty more follicles attached and no bald spots were showing through. Except the fallout rate was increasing by the day. I had to use packing tape to clean off my pillow. My neck and back itched from the tickling hairs that fell down my shirt. Showers were a nightmare. It felt good to massage my scalp while shampooing, but a cascade of hair would run down my back with the water, clogging the drain. I had to kick soggy wads to the side and scoop them into the trash later. Thinning, huh? I was thinking up smart-aleck remarks for my oncologist. How many pounds of hair constitutes thinning!!!???? So much for looking somewhat “normal” through this ordeal.


Clearly, it was time to get a short haircut so the weight of my hair wouldn’t pull out any more than necessary. There was some argument in the house about this decision, but I was not going to sport some comb over look just to keep longer hair on parts of my head. It was looking dull and feeling coarse anyway. I called my wonderful son, the hairdresser, and asked him to schedule me for a trim – preferably at a time when very few  clients were in the salon. I didn’t want to frighten anyone if it started to look like we were shaving a St. Bernard. (I later learned this was one of the hardest cuts he had to do. He fooled me completely and was calm and professional about creating my new, stylish “pixie” look.) The hair piled up deep on the floor, he had to clean his comb frequently, and we both knew this was a race against time – a very temporary fix for the inevitable. I kept apologizing for what a hassle I was. It hardly seemed worth the effort. It was all going to fall out anyway. When I got home, my daughter’s reaction was swift and straightforward. “I don’t like it. Now you really look like a cancer patient.” Super! As you might imagine, within a few days, the top of my head was mostly bare and the rest was brown straw hanging on for dear life. I lived in baseball caps or bandannas. There was no turning this bus around – I needed some fake hair. Now.


With a few phone calls and flips through the yellow pages, I was set. Several wig places even advertised discounts for chemotherapy patients! Who knew? I decided this was going to be an adventure I would only share with females who knew me well and would be honest. My daughter and my aunt were available and willing. Our first stop was a small boutique where a sweet, Asian woman showed compassion for my predicament. She educated us on the benefits of and differences between synthetic and human hair wigs. She provided a skull cap to keep my leftover bristles intact and tried a variety of wigs on me to get a feel for what I wanted. I really wanted to be Cher for a moment and pick about eight completely different looks just to see if I could pull them off. Bright red, long and curly – why not? Blonde, spiky and sassy – bring it on! Sultry, sleek brunette – yeah, baby! Chemo makes you a little crazy, and the choices were a bit overwhelming. We settled on a style and chose a color, but that combination wasn’t in stock. I placed my order, made a deposit, and went to lunch. Hopefully, it wouldn’t take too long to be shipped.


Next stop – another wig shop with more selection. Their ad promised thousands in stock. It was a back-up plan. As women, we never totally settle on a purchase until we’ve checked all the stores, right? Besides, friends who had gone through breast cancer thought nothing of having a few wigs. It made total sense to consider having two or more. Immediately, I didn’t like this place. The customer service was awful. We strolled aisles of wigs and hairpieces on shelves from floor to ceiling. It was Wigs ‘R Us without a clerk in sight. Finally, a petite woman approached the three of us and asked “So, which one of you is looking for a wig today?” Incredulously, I refrained from flinging off my baseball cap and shaking it out on her. “Oh, I don’t know…maybe the BALD one!!???


She made me buy a skull cap, touting the protection it gave me and future customers. So why was her coworker trying on wig after wig over her own hair without one of these special caps? Am I going to get head lice from something she’s played with? Nothing we tried “fit.” Too “old lady,” too curly, too short, too long, too skanky. Who on earth would spend over $100 for a wig that made it look like you were six months overdue for a color job? Dark roots with blonde hair…on purpose? The saleswomen assured us that look really was “in style.” Clearly I am old, sick —  and out of style.


Nearing exhaustion, we half-heartedly narrowed the choices to a couple of possibilities. Then the high pressure sales began. If I ordered two and paid 30% down, I could return one and they’d throw in the wig care kit, blah blah blah. After exchanging some uncertain glances with my consultants, I politely explained that we’d talk about it and maybe come back later with a decision. Once out the door, we heaved a collective sigh of relief. What a nightmare! I still have my $1 skull cap as a souvenir.


Our last stop was like walking into a spa. Calm music and soothing décor greeted us. Not a wig in sight. I thought perhaps we’d walked into the waiting room of a plastic surgeon. The receptionist was pleasant and understanding and explained their business philosophy. They were familiar with wig shopping nightmares and were out to create the anti-Wigs ‘R Us experience. Consultations took place in a private area in the back where you could shop for hats, scarves, and prosthesis-friendly swimsuits and bras. Although I didn’t need all those services, the warmth and care was a refreshing change. We left with some valuable knowledge – and a wig care kit.


Back at home, without a single wig, we reviewed our afternoon of frustration. Who knew it would take so long to find a suitable “cranial prosthesis” as the insurance company refers to them? To add insult to injury, I had a “prescription” from my oncologist, but my insurance didn’t cover wigs, so it would have to be reimbursed through my medical spending account. I needed a nap, and a good cry. I desperately wanted to shave my head and move on to the wig. My mirror was a freak show and I often scared myself. Who was that person looking back? And if my forehead just blends into my scalp, where will I stop putting on foundation? Would my eyebrows and lashes be next? Would I be able to leave the house the rest of the summer or become a hermit and shuffle around in slippers all day, growing pale and emaciated? What exactly did the coming weeks hold? Does God answer wig prayers? I’d settle for one good one. Really. Forget the collection. I was just kidding about the Cher stuff.


The next day, I got a call from wig shop #1. The style I’d chosen would not be available for 8 weeks, but she’d taken the liberty of ordering something similar. Would I like to come in and try it on? Didn’t seem like I had many options, so why not? Go figure – it was perfect. My daughter immediately loved it, it made me look younger (yay!), and we were out the door in minutes. My son gave it his stamp of approval and didn’t think it needed a bit of customizing or tailoring to my face. Wa-Hoo! Let the head shaving begin.


Towel – check. Razor with new blade – check. Camera – check. Courage – sure. Sense of humor – umm, we’ll see. I leaned over the kitchen sink with a towel around my neck. With the water running, my daughter started at the back of my head and carefully began drawing a Venus razor over what was left of my pixie cut. It felt tickle-y and a bit creepy and then just tedious. Heads are lumpy with lots of curves and a pair of clippers would have been much easier and faster. Didn’t have them. Just before finishing, we stopped to take a break. My nose was getting stuffy, my back sore and patience thin. There was a triangular swatch left where my bangs should have been and without much coaxing, it flipped into a baby curl turning me into an alien with a mini-pompadour. Hysterical laughing and silly posing filled the next few minutes as we captured the moment and cracked jokes.

At the same time, I could feel a lump forming in my throat. It was official. It would be months before I’d need a blow dryer or curling iron, let alone hair products. I’d joined the ranks of cancer victims of all varieties, ages and genders. Relief and resignation collided in my heart and only an act of will kept me from bursting into tears as my first bald pictures were taken.



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