Best friends fade….hair falls out….but you will always be YOU

Blog featured on the Fred Hutch Survivorship Program: Best friends fade….hair falls out….but you will always be YOU

I never fully understood how important and attached I was to my hair—until I lost it.  My hair was my best friend.  It was always with me, kept me warm and safe, and most of all, we shared great memories.  Whether it was extraordinary vacations, delicious dinners, dance parties or just fun day-to-day activities, my hair was by my side.

When it was time to start chemotherapy, I somehow thought my best friend would never leave.  I felt our love could prevent this poison from destroying our friendship.  I told her that I would not shave her off if she promised to not fall out.  In my mind, we created the perfect pact, and I somehow felt more confident starting chemo because I knew we could rely on one another.  I took especially good care of her.  I even washed her less frequently so that her roots would hold on tight and not feel the harsh water pressure beat down on her fragile self.

After the second round of chemo, I felt betrayed.  I was in the shower, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw a huge, dark clump of her lying peacefully on the shower tiles.  My eyes widened with disbelief as I held her in my wet, shriveled hand.  The sense of betrayal was nauseating—I felt as if a knife dug into my heart.  The sad thing is, deep down I knew I could not blame her.  I knew this was coming but somehow felt our love for one another could overcome the effects of chemo.

Our relationship started to spiral downhill.  Tensions were high, and we did not know how to relate to one another anymore.  She was falling out more and more as I entered the halfway mark of my chemotherapy.  I became self-conscious and embarrassed of her.  She could not control it, I know, but she started shedding everywhere—on my pillow, on my clothes.  I would even walk into clumps of her camouflaged on the floor.  She crept and clung to my skin, creating the sensation of bugs crawling on me.  I grew more anxious as her obnoxious ways interfered with my social life.  She was yelling for attention by falling out in chunks when I moved my hair to the side, when I ran my fingers through her or even more embarrassing: if she got caught on a button or zipper.

I hit my breaking point. My other half, my best friend, a piece of me that created a part of my identity had disappeared, and I felt I disappeared with her.  I felt as though people could not know the real me without her.  The question: “Who am I?”, swirled in my head.  How was I supposed to hold onto my mental and physical self while the chemo was destroying me?

This inability to control what was happening challenged my ego to a point of no return.  Staring into a mirror, I no longer saw the confident, sexy, sophisticated, funny girl I knew and loved.  Instead, I saw a sad, yellow-skinned, balding girl who looked lost and lonely.  In order to keep going, I dug deep inside of myself and discovered a thread of confidence and the strength to keep going even though I did not have my partner in crime. 

About 3/4 the way through my chemo, many friends and family friends offered advice: “Why don’t you just shave your head and embrace it?” That word SHAVE brought chills to my spine. SHAVE? If I shaved my head then I truly would be bald, and that meant looking like a ‘real’ cancer patient.  At this point, my hair really did look pathetic.  I would not have been able to admit it then, but looking in our scrapbook made me realize how sad we looked together.  Holding onto this pathetic excuse of a ponytail was, in my mind, my way of holding onto my femininity, sexuality and control.  It was my way of not allowing myself to feel or really look sick.  The fear of looking and being sick haunted me and swung over my head like a dark, gloomy cloud.

I managed to make it through chemotherapy without shaving her.  I let her grow back naturally and gave her shape-up trims where I could.  However, our relationship was different this time around.  I realized I did not rely on her to give me a sense of identity and confidence anymore.  Hitting a point in my life where I felt lost, mangled and confused allowed me to do some intense soul searching. I no longer felt the need to hang on to external values.  Instead, I was able to tap in on a deeper level and find my new best friend—my inner self.

Completing chemotherapy taught me much more than I ever could have imagined. I realized that, in the end, all we truly can control are our own thoughts, emotions and actions.  Losing my hair was something I couldn’t control.  Having yellowish skin due to chemo was something I couldn’t control.  I could allow myself to spiral into a depression and hold onto anger and a sense of betrayal or I could consciously choose to feel and think something different.  Instead of letting the external world influence my identity and confidence, I turned inwards for strength.  I connected to my inner self, soul and the values that I consciously live by.  I knew I was lucky to be breathing, so I simply chose to be grateful and find the beauty and light in every situation.  Allowing myself to focus on the positive in life granted me a sense of freedom and space to explore my identity.

When you feel like life is out of control, tap in and find your inner best friend. Your beautiful energy can always shine no matter what tribulations surround you.  Discover your values and live them each day so you can connect to your true essence, which will never fall out or fade away.