WomanLab collaborator Deborah Siegel shares about life during treatment for breast cancer, beyond hair.
In preparation for losing my hair due to chemo, I’d gone shopping for fake hair with my friend Angela, at “Jerome Krause Fashion Hair/Wigs.” Hair-Slash-Wigs: what does that even mean? My hair’s been slashed, I need a wig! Help me, Jerome, you’re my only hope!
“Regain what you’ve lost – discreetly and with dignity,” promised the Jerome Krause website. After the double mastectomy, I’d never regain what I really lost. But ok, I figured, let’s try.
Besides, I needed some comic relief. I had braved the surgery with flying colors, but I was traumatized at the prospect of being bald.
I had been pretty upset, as you can imagine, about the cancer. But when I thought about losing my hair, a new wave of anguish set in, oddly more disturbing than diagnosis. Or maybe this was my response to diagnosis, delayed. I found myself walking into portals of despair, sobbing uncontrollably off and on that entire week. Only my children’s presence had the power to pull me out.
“Jerome Krause Fashion Hair/Wigs” is located in Skokie, Illinois, home to a large Orthodox Jewish community. I imagined that Orthodox women shopped there for their sheydls (wigs to cover their actual hair—confusing, I know, and the subject of the written essay form of this tale). But Jerome Krause, with its private consultations and personal fitting rooms, was far more about bereavement than about covering up. “We understand that enduring hair loss as a result of chemotherapy, burns, accidents or alopecia can be a traumatic experience. Our caring team strives to help you regain what you’ve lost, while ensuring you are treated with the respect that you deserve.”
During the appointment, a Caring Team Member set us up in a room and brought in a number of wigs, each in shoebox-sized box marked with the wig’s name. Yes, name. As in: Sandra. Alexandra. Susan. When Caring Team Member left the room to get more wigs for me to try, Angela and I made faces at each other. We both thought naming wigs with women’s names was creepy. I pulled out the pink rockstar wig I’d brought with me for laughs and put it on. When Caring Team Member returned, she did not laugh.
In the end, I went with Sandra, the short perky wig, and a halo of longer hair named Emily. Plus a biker chic headscarf and a hot pink cap to top things off.
“You’ll Never See Anyone Wearing a Jerome Krause Hairpiece,” the website says.
It took me a while to get the joke.
During the first few weeks being bald, I wear light cotton headscarves a friend has given me. Sandra squeezes my head, which doesn’t lessen the migraines that the chemo is giving me, so I wear it (her?) only on Skype calls with clients, yanking her (it?) off the minute I’m through. For picking my kids up from school in the summer heat, I don a halo of faux pigtails (Emily, parsed in two) under a broad-rimmed sunhat. A halo is a piece of elastic that goes around your head in a literal halo, attached to some hair hanging down. There’s a whole part missing—the whole top of your head is missing. Now, I’m thrifty, and I appreciate that a halo is a third the price of a wig. It’s like for people with cancer who can’t afford a whole head of hair.
But Emily freaks my children out. They see through the lie.
I’m aiming for normalcy. But nothing about this feels normal. I’m relentlessly exposed even when I’m covered.
My boy shudders the first time he sees the small mole on my bare head.
I want to cover all the mirrors.
Since mirrors, in Judaism, are only covered in death, ultimately I must confront them. Hair grows back, I hear people say. I’m going to live a long life, I hear the doctors say. I choose to believe them.
I experiment, slowly. I take off the headwear in yoga class first, parking my mat in a far back corner, where my image is safely blurred in the mirror up front. My friend Randi asks me to send her a picture of me in a scarf she’s given me as a gift, and I let Marco take a photo of me bald, which I send to her via text. “You have a beautifully round head,” Randi texts back. The next day, I work up the courage to go to chemo without coverage (if anyone doesn’t care, it’s other bald women at chemo). Then I post a picture of my round-headed bald self on the private website where I update family and friends.
A guy friend I had a crush on in college writes back: “You look amazing!”
I don’t believe him.
But I appreciate the gesture, calling me back to myself.
While I eagerly await the first hair’s return to my head, which won’t be for a long while, Marco sends me pictures of beautiful bald women from the Internet. He sends me a link to a Pinterest board called Bald and Beautiful. He texts me an image of Asajj Ventriss, the sexy assassin trained in the ways of the dark side by Count Dooku in Star Wars: Return of the Sith.
Marco offers to shave his head in solidarity, but my friends and I agree that his hair—thick, curly, silver—is far too beautiful to lose. (I mean, look at it!)
Mine was too. But I wasn’t exactly allowed to choose. Mandatory hair loss doesn’t feel badass. It just feels…bad.
My girl encourages me to go out in public bald. She says, “Just be yourself, Mommy.” She says, “That’s what’s most important. Show them who you are.” She’s internalized all the Disney movies.
Or maybe she’s internalized an earlier version of…me.
I’m not ready yet to go out in public, exposed. But for the sake of my daughter, it becomes my goal.
One morning upon waking she tells me her dream. “You were on the playground at school waiting to pick me up. And you were bald. It was how I wanted you to be.”
According to her, it’s in the hiding of my baldness that power is lost.
I finally go out for lunch—bald, in public—with Angela and our friend Malik. Malik had shaved her head in solidarity with a friend who went through chemo. When that beloved friend died, Malik kept her hair shorn super-short, she told me, because she liked the look. We were two shorn women at one table, and no one stared. No one cared. This is Evanston, a liberal place, a college town.
It feels different being bald in Winnetka, ten miles to the north, where everyone seems coiffed and tanned. The further north from Chicago I travel along Lake Michigan’s shore, toward Wisconsin, the more I find myself wanting to cover up. In Utica, IL, further south from Chicago, it’s not just the kids but the parents, too, who stare.
But while hiking to the south in Starved Rock State Park, I pass a fellow traveler on the trail. She’s young and bald. Her dark eyebrows are penciled on.
My daughter spots her too. “Look, Mommy,” she says. “She must be taking the same medicine as you.”
I peel off my bandana, emboldened by this younger woman on the trail. I catch her eyes later at the restaurant and she curls her fingers and raises her hand, fist bumping the air in my direction. I fist bump back.
I feel myself rediscovering some strength out here in the woods. I am invisible and conspicuous. My power lies in deciding when and where.
When my hair returns, it grows slowly, and I look like a baby chick. The chick stage lasts a full month before what a friend who’s gone through this before calls the “prisoner-escaped-from-Auschwitz-stage” sets in.
Three months after the final round of chemo and six weeks after radiation ends, I plan a party to thank those who fed my family and me throughout the ordeal. Marco and his friends practice some songs to play on drums and guitars while my girl and I choreograph a flash mob dance to Ultimate Dance Hits! Factory’s remixed version of Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song.” Marco records us doing the steps in our bedroom, and we upload the video to share with our friends so that at the party, they too can dance along. The party takes place on December 10—winter. But I do not wear a hat.
When the music comes on, my girl and I take our places at opposite sides of the room. The guys are drumming now with the beat of the remix. My girl and I walk toward each other with pedestrian steps, and as the music rises and the drums build power, we add a skip to our step. We pass each other midway, walk to where the other began, then turn around to make the walk again. One by one, my girlfriends and their young children get up from their seats and join us in our skip step back and forth across the stage.
“My power’s turned on…”
When the chorus plays, we mock punch and kick box.
“And I don’t really care what nobody else believes…”
We strike a Rosie the Riveter pose.
[Photo by Toni Cuenca on Unsplash]
Edited by Chenab Navalkha