I’m never going to feel beautiful again. Who will I be without my hair, without my breasts? What guy is going to want a bald, breast-less sick girl?
I am not one for long good-byes. I wanted to just get it over with, to know that I was the one in control of saying farewell to my beautifully long locks, rather than bear a slow, painful witness to their gradual disappearance. I couldn’t stand the thought of my lovely healthy hair being tainted by poison, as would inevitably happen once the drugs entered my bloodstream and traveled to my hair follicles. If I couldn’t spare my body the assault of chemotherapy, I at least wanted to spare my hair. I would shave it off myself.
I was scheduled to start treatment two days after I finished my first quarter of veterinary school. So, the weekend before finals, when all but the genius, insane, or pathologically confident were safely locked away studying day and night, I decided that my hair deserved one last night out on the town. My naturally wavy tresses wanted to be styled and straightened and tossed from side to side one final time, and who was I to deny such a request? I called my friends.
“Let’s go out.”
“No way! It’s finals week. I need to study.”
“Come on! It’s my last weekend with hair!”
I had spent the past few weeks both falling asleep and waking up crying, but that evening my despair morphed into a manic state of determination to have fun. This was my last weekend with hair. It had to be amazing.
We went out for sushi and sake bombs. As the evening progressed, I couldn’t shake the sadness that everything I did was the last time I would do it with my hair. This is my last night to feel girly, I thought. I was convinced that being bald would make me look fat and boyish. No matter how hard I tried to have fun, I couldn’t stop myself from seeing everything through this Last Supper lens. The night became clouded with a heavy sense of impending doom. I started to doubt my decision. Maybe I should wait and see what happens once I start the chemo, I thought. Maybe I’ll get lucky and it won’t fall out.
The next day, no longer absorbed in my nighttime revelries, I realized that the anticipation of saying goodbye to my brunette beauties was starting to consume me. Rather than taking note of every last event with hair, I needed to just shave it off. If I hadn’t been completely sure of my decision before, I was now.
A few days later, I headed back home to my parents’ house for winter break. Three of my childhood friends, Alexis, Stephanie, and Lauren, offered to come over to hang out, and I was grateful for the company. The four of us had grown up together, but we hadn’t gotten together as a group for years. Still, when I called each of them to tell them about the cancer, it was as if the past few years of distance and sporadic contact had never happened. They all headed down to Santa Cruz to see me. It was the day before my first chemo infusion. If I was going to shave my head, it was now or never.
I hadn’t warned any of them of my activity agenda for their visit, but once they arrived and I asked if they would help, they enthusiastically agreed. The house had a reverse floor plan with the main level on the second story and my bedroom below, allowing for a modicum of privacy.
I had been too scared to tell mum and dad that I was even thinking about shaving my head. I didn’t want them to try to talk me out of it, and deep down, I hadn’t been entirely sure that I would go through with it. If I chickened out, I didn’t want to have to explain that I didn’t have the courage.
I had decided to donate my hair since it would no longer be any good to me. All of the organizations required hair to be neatly collected into a braid before mailed in. For those with hair like mine that barely met the eight-inch length requirement, they recommended sectioning it out into lots of tiny braids to maximize the amount of hair that is long enough for a wig.
The girls got to work braiding my hair. We sat on the floor drinking red wine, eating chocolate chip cookies, listening to the radio, and reminiscing about high school. We tried to lift the mood, and for a while, it worked.
“Remember that old decrepit golf cart we used to drive around the farm?” I said to Alexis. Her family owned the stable where we all rode horses together.
“Oh my gosh that thing was awesome! We felt like such bad-asses,” she said, laughing.
“Yeah, right up until we decided to go off-roading in the middle of the night, in the middle of winter, and got stuck in the mud. What were we thinking? Your dad was so pissed!” We all laughed.
By the time the girls were done with their criss-crossing and rubber banding, I looked like a gangster rapper from the 80’s with tiny braids popping out of my head in every direction. We took silly pictures of me trying to appear thuggish with my new do.
It started to get late. As Lauren sneaked a look at the time, I knew that I was going to have to take the plunge. Everyone had a job to get to early the next morning, and Lauren and Alexis both had to drive over an hour back to San Francisco that evening. We were responsible young adults now, and our days of pulling all nighters off-roading in golf carts were long gone.
Realizing that we couldn’t procrastinate the looming task at hand all night, I was no longer able to maintain my efforts to be upbeat. The mood shifted into a more honest, painful place.
“I’m never going to feel beautiful again,” I told them. “Who will I be without my hair, without my breasts? I’m single. I’m 25. What guy is going to want a bald, breast-less sick girl?” I began to cry.
“But you have a great ass,” Alexis tried to reassure me. “Who needs boobs when you’ve got a butt like yours?”
“I’ve always been jealous of your legs,” Stephanie chimed in.
“The right outfit can definitely hide your chest,” Lauren added. “Short skirts and baggy sweaters are totally in right now. We’ll go shopping!”
I loved them for trying, but their words were no match for the terrifying truth that shaving my head was the beginning of the end—of who I was, and quite possibly, of my life. First the hair would go, then the eyebrows and eyelashes. Then, my breasts would follow suit. Odds were that I was going to lose at least one, and I didn’t like the idea of being uni-boobed any more than being boobless. What would be left of me?
I had never consciously realized how much of my identity rested in the notion that I was attractive. I like to think of myself as more the sporty type than a girl consumed with looks. I don’t even know how to put on eye shadow. But now that I faced saying goodbye to feeling pretty, I felt like I was losing one of the most important aspects of my identity.
“I can’t do this,” I told them.
“You are a warrior going into battle. Think of this as your preparatory ritual,” Alexis said. Alexis’s wild and crazy curls embodied the confidence and fearlessness that I loved so much about her. Coming from her, with those gravity-defying twists and turns of hair, the clichéd warrior metaphor worked. I felt a surge of determination and capitalized on it, unsure of how long it might last.
I sat down in a chair facing the mirror. “Just do it.”
Lauren picked up the scissors and snipped off the first braid. I had always envied Lauren’s long, impossibly straight blond hair, and now I watched as the owner of those beautiful golden locks cut off my hair, one braid at a time. I cried the entire time.
After the last braid had been safely detached from my soon to be toxic head, it was time to shave the rest. My horse clippers, which I normally used to trim my horse’s shaggy winter coat, sat on the bathroom counter next to my pile of freshly cut braids. I had brought them home from the barn a few days earlier. Horse or human, clippers were clippers, and they were the only electric shavers I owned. I didn’t even bother to clean the horsehair off of them.
“Just do it,” I sobbed.
Alexis flipped the clippers on and began to remove the remaining stubs of hair from my head. “Will I always feel this way, so empty, so estranged?” Ray LaMontagna sang on the radio, in his husky, soulful voice.
To feel empty would have been a relief from what I was feeling. I was far from empty. I was filled to capacity with fear, and the pressure was palpable. I felt like one of those Styrofoam cups they teach kids about in elementary school science class, the kind they lower into the ocean to demonstrate the power of deep-sea water pressure. The water pressure acts like the shrinking biscuit in Alice of Wonderland, crushing the cup from every angle into a miniature version of its former self. I could feel the pressure of my impending death weighing on every inch of my body, and from every angle. The fear of dying, the grief of a life not yet lived, was crushing me. But I was not made of Styrofoam; I was bones and flesh, and my body resisted the pressure, refusing to buckle under the weight. I had been submerged in this unrelenting oceanic pressure for weeks, and now, the music, the buzz of the clippers, the sounds of my friends quietly sobbing—it was all putting me over the edge. I felt like I was being lowered another few feet into the depths of the ocean. Even Stephanie, the most unshakable of the group with her fiercely dark brunette mane, was in tears.
They stood around me in a circle, each taking a turn with the clippers to shave a different section of my head. I put my head down, covered my eyes, and cried into my hands. My chair was still facing the mirror, but I couldn’t look up. I couldn’t watch myself physically becoming what I had emotionally been for weeks—broken, scarred. Here was the undeniable, visual evidence that I was sick. I couldn’t bear to see it. Thankfully, my friends knew to keep shaving until the job was done, no matter how hard I cried. I don’t think I would have had it in me to say “just do it” one more time.
When they finished, I slowly raised my head and opened my blood-shot eyes. This was it. I was officially a cancer patient.
“Dude.” Alexis said. “Your hair was holding you back!”
I examined my unevenly shaved head in the mirror, running my hands over the various lengths of soft, velvet-like stubble. The heavy-duty clippers designed for coarse horsehair didn’t have a guard to regulate length, and they had been passed between three different pairs of shaky hands.
I sat up a little bit taller as I stared at myself in the mirror, speechless.
Alexis reached out and rubbed my head. “Damn, you look hot!” We took one last picture, this time of the four of us: me, standing in the middle, as my three childhood friends each laid a hand on my newly hairless head. For the first time in the 5 weeks since I had been diagnosed, I felt ready. I just shaved my head with a pair of horse clippers, I thought. I can do this.
The next morning, I walked into the cancer center with my poorly shaven head held high.
HAIR first appeared in Issue 1: Phoenix, March 2016.
This essay is an excerpt from Rebecca’s memoir, shared here with her permission. HAIR is now in the process of being turned into a short film.
Rebecca Hall Dickson
Writer, editor, yoga instructor. Diagnosed at age 25. Stage III, Triple Positive (HER2+, ER+, PR+). Diagnosed at age 29. Stage IV, Triple Positive (HER2+, ER+, PR+).
Becky is a freelance medical, nonfiction, and creative writer and editor. She specializes in psychiatry and behavioral sciences clinical writing, translating scientific information for the general public, and working with non-native English speakers for an international client base. Becky is currently writing a personal memoir about her experience as a 25-year-old breast cancer patient. Excerpts from her memoir have been featured at the 32nd annual In Celebration of the Muse, a showcase of female authors, and at Doctors and Patients: What We Learn from Each Other, a Pegasus Physician Writers event at Stanford University. Becky is also the owner of Santa Cruz Nature Yoga with Rebecca Dickson, which offers group and private yoga classes in the redwoods, on the beach, and anywhere else the inspiration strikes. As a certified Ashtanga yoga instructor, Becky teaches yoga to all ability levels, but feels particularly drawn to working with those dealing with illness and injury. When she’s not writing or practicing yoga, she enjoys riding horses, rock-climbing, ocean kayaking, hiking, and mountain biking. She lives in Santa Cruz, California with her husband and her dog.