‘Great Haircut’: The Unexpected Upside Of Losing My Hair To Cancer – WBUR

Posted: Friday, April 04, 2014

All my life I’ve wrestled with unruly hair. It’s always been too curly, too thick and more recently too flecked with grey. A decade ago, as I was beginning to accept my contrary locks, I lost them altogether, due to chemotherapy. I began wearing a wig and sheepishly gathering compliments from friends and strangers alike.

“Great haircut,” said the flight attendant as I stepped off an airplane. I smiled, tossed my silky reddish-brown, chin-length bob and strolled down the tarmac feeling like an imposter. Not long after a colleague gushed, “You cut your hair. It looks fabulous.” She ran her fingers through her wild mane, then looked at me hopefully. “Maybe I should cut mine,” she sighed. I did not have the heart to suggest that a haircut might not yield the chic coif she was dreamily pondering.

Nor did I let on when, at a party several weeks afterward, an acquaintance paused midsentence, while conversing with my husband and me. The man stood back and seemed to be admiring something. A striking guest entering the room? It never occurred to me that it might be my do. “Your hair is so beautiful, so shiny,” he said. I winked and said, “I help it along a little,” suggesting the addition of color, then changed the subject.

No one had ever before admired my hair. Friends had offered perfunctory “looks nice” after a haircut and my husband, “smells nice,” when I changed shampoos. This new enthusiasm, while unsettling, was also mildly intoxicating, as was the idea of wearing a disguise. I thought of food writer Ruth Reichl, who, in her restaurant reviewing days, had donned different wigs and wild clothing to conceal her identity.

I had no desire to conceal my cancer. But neither did I want to subject my bald head to the pitying eyes of strangers. If I could have simply said, “I got cancer,” like “I got a perm,” that would have been fine. Yet, I tired of being asked: What kind of cancer? When were you diagnosed? How did they discover it?

The author, pictured in her wig. (Courtesy)

The author, pictured in her wig. (Courtesy)

There are far worse things than losing one’s hair, but the hair is one’s public self. I donned the wig in order to carry on my everyday life with as little interruption as possible.

I did not anticipate that the $217 prosthesis purchased not on Madison Avenue, but at Boston’s Dana Farber Cancer Institute, would inspire such strong passions, yet once they were unleashed, I refused to act the spoiler. I began to believe in the wig’s power to transform my life. I viewed myself differently. Suddenly I appeared as sleek as the hair (the loss of five pounds due to chemo helped), and glamorous, too.

One day, helping my husband to clean out the cellar, I paused to look at myself in the mirror. There I was: the perfect image of a busy woman covered with dust, but looking terrific! I had finally found the hairstyle that framed my face perfectly. All I had to do was to run a comb through my synthetic locks, and a face that my mother had lamented as too long and too sad now looked perky and pretty.

Only once was my perfect hair bliss broken, when a PC neighbor, one of the last holdouts of 1970s naturalism, confronted me in the grocery checkout. “What did you do to your hair?” she gasped. “It looks like geisha hair. You didn’t straighten it, did you?”

“No, I have cancer,” I blurted out, leaving her speechless.

Six months after the chemotherapy treatments ended, I faced a new dilemma: my own hair was growing back — fast. And curlier than ever! It started creeping out from under the silken bob like weeds through the roses. My longtime hairdresser assured me that I could get a similarly “smooth” effect by blow drying my natural hair and employing a styling brush. But the wig looked so good — better than my own hair ever could.

Why take if off? I considered keeping it on and calling the act ancestral. Surely, I reasoned, somewhere in my secular Jewish family tree must have lurked an Orthodox woman who bared her natural locks only to her husband, as I did only to mine, in the intimacy of our bedroom.

Yet, as I thought about this, the stubborn curls pushed out from under my wig, ready to present themselves in a hurricane of brown and silver. Warily eyeing in the mirror what cancer had returned to me, I pulled off the wig and embraced the hurricane in all its contrary glory.

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