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Friday, July 21, 2017 This Week's Paper

The Lucky Woman’s Guide to Breast Cancer - No Bad Hair Days


When I started chemotherapy in February, dear friends shaved their heads to show their love and solidarity.

Me? I started buying hats.

My friends were willing to go bald, show bald, to give the raspberry to cancer. I wasn’t. Yet.

Not that I didn’t think I was a gutsy cancer chick. I was pretty sure I was.

I pasted a smile on my face, and realized that when I did, it leaked into my attitude, and I felt better.

When the docs and nurses told us that exercise upped my chances of survival, my husband invited me to join him on his daily walk. Most days, I go. The same 1.7-mile route changes every day and tapes me to the world where llamas appear in fields, people park 1999 Escalades, $9,000, firm, in their front yards, and something died in a ditch.

I bought a wig, red and curly, like the hair I always envied, and found that it itched, and made me look organized enough to set hair, which I am not. We’ve named it Cashew, after the imperiled guinea pig on “House of Cards,” and retired it.

When I show up for chemo every week, it has been with the kind of headgear I never would have dared wear when I had hair. The summer fedoras would make The New Takhoman’s John Hathaway proud. Best of all were stretchy tubes of fabric from The Dollar Tree. You slide them onto your skull, and you look like someone who can tie a scarf. Though I haven’t robbed many banks lately, I can also see them working as a disguise if pulled down and adjusted to reveal only the eyes.

So, yeah, I was stylin’.

It made sense in the winter, when it’s cold, to be bald. It made sense in what I considered Etiquette World, where it’s rude to make other people uncomfortable. I know that mattered to me because in classes and interviews, I asked people if they minded if I took off my hat. They never did. In public, I worried that a bald old woman might scare young children. Small children, it turns out, are better than that.

Society, these days, is better than that.

It just took me a while to catch up and treat head covering as accessories. Options. Stuff I could choose not to wear. Call it a failure to connect with unwelcome reality.

Who wants to imagine bad cells rampaging over the good ones, and our skilled allies launching chemical assaults on them? I can’t picture it, and don’t particularly want to. But I do think we need to talk about it, not so much to raise public awareness but to process it in our own heads. A bald pate is an invitation to do that with others living the cancer story.

At Costco, bone marrow registry crusader Wayne Mangan was buying his granddaughter a lunch box – a neat trick for a guy who was supposed to be dead a decade ago. When we ran into him, he told us about the clinical trials that have kept him going and are yielding data to save a new generation of people with leukemia. He updated us on his marrow donor registration drives and his Caring Bridge campaign for gifts of joy for kids who don’t have much time. And we talked about insurance, bills, side effects and his decision to retire early to spend time with his family.

You listen to a guy like that admit that he’s been tired, and you feel better, because you’ve been tired, too. So darn tired. Not tired enough to give up. Just tired enough to be discouraged, to wonder what it was like to bounce out of bed in the morning and bounce in again after a good day of work. Tired enough to ask your husband not to say you look great, because you feel lousy, and you hate it when the chemo steroids make you look like Heidi’s rosy-cheeked auntie back from climbing a frickin’ alp.

At McLendon’s, survivor and friend Maria was buying a red leaf maple. It’s a good sign, buying a two-foot tree. It means you expect to enjoy a six-foot tree. Maria looked at my fingernails and said, yeah, hers got funky, too, but it didn’t hurt much when she lost them. And, look, she’s getting hair again. She’s not quite sure what it’ll look like, but it’s not that faux stubble that teases then release itself onto a pillow one night. This, she said, will be keeper hair.

I’ve got some faux stubble going now. It’s nice to pat, but if it turns out like Meryl Streep’s in “August: Osage County,” I’m shaving it.

I’m expecting keeper hair by Halloween, and dreaming of an explosion of white froth dyed hot pink.

By Thanksgiving, it will be hat weather again.

And for Christmas, here’s what I’d like: A bad hair day.

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