After I underwent brain surgery and started receiving radiation, I’ve been pissed off by many, many things. But one topic I’ve consistently avoided is any discussion about my hair.
Yes, people who undergo radiation or chemotherapy often lose their hair, and when that happens, people in the waiting room or at the coffee shop or in church are compelled to start talking to you about your hair: “What are you going to do with your hair?” “Just settle into the fact that you’re going to lose it all.” “Start looking for these head covers. Have you seen this website?” “Oh, honey, you know they have those wigs.” People out in the world don’t know what to say about someone being treated for cancer, so they talk about their hair.
For many patients, this hair obsession is simply their way of dealing with the incredible set of circumstances before them. You can’t control much of anything that’s happening to you, but you can control what you do to your hair. And before you make that decision, you have conversations about it in the waiting room, at the coffee shop, and in church, again and again.
As for me, I’ve consistently recognized that my hair isn’t important. My ability to care for my daughter is important. My writing is important. Surrounding myself with my family and friends is important. All of that is absolutely true. My hair is low on my list of priorities.
But as I approached the end of my radiation, I started being curious about my hair. The left side of my head — the place the radiation had been going — had become fuzzy, with little chunks of short hair emerging. The rest of my head was covered with my typical long, frizzy hair. I started looking in the mirror and began to wonder what would be next.
Brain surgery folks like myself can’t cut our hair or use conditioner when we are going through radiation. But once radiation is complete, we can do anything we want. Although I didn’t want to look conventional, a person whose scar becomes invisible, I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do.
One day my brother, who once had a full, flowing mane of hair, wrote me about his own experiences: “Going from long hair to a shaved head was really scary and exciting for me. One reason I shaved my head was because of something that Lenny Kravitz said about why he cut off his dreads: ‘It was time for them to go, man … they held a lot of vibes and have been through all my experiences with me … I needed to shed them.'”
My brother added, “This was totally true for me at the time, and sounds like it’s true for you. I think you’ll look great with a shaved head, but it ultimately I think it’s about more than just how you’ll look.”
Fuck yeah, I thought. My brother had it. My interest in my hair wasn’t about beauty or about hiding my scars. I wanted to cut off all my hair because the long hair I’ve always had, well, it was time to let it go — for now.
I have profound memories of that hair, not just from the radiation process but from the years it’s been with me. It wasn’t that I wanted to abandon those memories, at least not all of them. It was because I’m ready for change. I don’t want to be who I was. I want to be who I am now, a person ready to follow the things that make me passionate, delighted, generous, loving.
So on Halloween, the day after my radiation ended, I went to a salon and had them cut my hair. My mom came along and took pictures of the whole process. The salon had offered a private room, but I didn’t want it. I wanted this to be public, and many of their other clients looked over, curiously in a kind way.
I watched huge clumps of hair fall to the floor. And when we were done, I saw myself. Short, short hair. It feels totally different in my hands. See the picture that goes with this article? I don’t look like that.
Dramatically different. I’m ready.