Most people who undergo chemotherapy lose their hair. Most women who receive the A/C drug cocktail I’m receiving for breast cancer treatment begin seeing the effects of alopecia (hair loss) about 14 days after their first treatment.
Apparently, I’m a bit of an overachiever.
Last night in the shower, my hair began falling out in clumps – and once it dried a few hours later, I ran my hand through it and came away with a large enough portion that it was clear the time had come.
I went to the bathroom and shaved my head.
Although a lot of hair remains, it’s easier to clean up 1/4″ pieces off the floor than long, stringy segments that look like someone set a radiated collie loose in my living room.
When I first learned I’d need chemo, the thought of losing my hair seemed even worse than the (surgical) loss of my breasts. In addition to being more public, my hair was a large part of my identity, and I hated the fact that cancer could take that from me.
In the weeks that followed, as I began to see this time of treatment as one of meditation, prayer, and preparation for the Hundred Summits Project and my new, post-cancer life to come, my attitude about my hair loss changed — to the point that, for the last few days, I’d been waiting almost eagerly for my hair to fall.
For thousands of years, men and women of many faiths have shaved their heads as a symbol of commitment to a new way of life. Priests and nuns (Buddhist as well as Christian) shave their hair upon entering the priesthood, joining a convent, or undertaking an important pilgrimage. They shed their hair as a visible sign of their commitment, their humility, and the change they have chosen to accept.
I did not lose my hair last night. I surrendered it voluntarily as a sign that my old, post-cancer life, which was dominated by fear of failure, fear of loss, and too many other fears to count, is over. My new life of facing fear, overcoming obstacles, and pursuing my dreams has now formally begun.
For the next four months, as I undergo treatment, I will be planning, training, and preparing for that life. I don’t expect the mental parts to be any easier than the physical ones – but that’s what training periods are for. I don’t expect to emerge as a perfect person, and I don’t expect the challenges to end when April comes. But warriors do not have to be perfect, and real strength is defined by having the will to get up when you get knocked down.
Upon seeing the photo I posted above, my friends and family asked “are you really okay?”
To which I happily answer yes – and better than just okay. I am happy. I am strong. And I look forward to the days to come (including the sight of myself with an egg-bald head – though I admit it’s easier for me because I know the hair will return when chemo finishes).
Whatever challenge you’re facing, I hope you find a way to approach it that gives you similar strength. We are all warriors. We just need to look, and find the courage hiding deep inside.