The thing about cancer and hair loss

Pictured: Aleyda

Pictured: Aleyda

When I was in treatment for cancer, one of the nurses said to me, “You know, I treat women all the time and I see them cry so much about the impending hair loss as opposed to the Cancer. What’s that all about? I’m a man and I try to be empathetic, but I just don’t get it.”

I flash back to my time with Chemo and the realization that I, too, would soon be bald. And you know, the nurse was right. I did cry. I feared my hair loss. I guess I was trying to wrap my brain around the insurmountable loss so hair loss was more manageable.

Hair (and hair loss) was to me in itself a metaphor to my transformation: It’s yours, you learn to care for it, obsess over it, acknowledge its feminine power, lose it, accept the loss and witness it grow back again–its rebirth–wondering what will it be like, look like, and feel like. Sometimes, you just have to wait and witness it unfold.

Losing my hair was a big deal when I was trying to understand how it would feel like to be bald, but once it happens, you adapt. It is amazing how the human sprit adapts. During this time in my journey, I came to terms with the beauty God had given me within my body. I was no different than any other American woman obsessed with perfection and wanting what they don’t have. I did not know this about myself. I was not conscious of my insecurities. They were so natural to me that it was just who I was. I was always feeling a bit heavier, shorter, larger, smaller, not pretty enough and God Knows what other self deprecating emotions.

And then it happened. I lost my hair. All of it. The process was slow, however, and I am grateful for the spirited being within me who guided me not to water down my experience. To stay present and to be courageous. I decided not to wear a wig. Instead, I chose beautiful scarves. I was not going to hide what was happening to me, and I was determined to be beautiful in spite of my hair loss. I also lived in South Florida, so a wig on a hot day along with hot flashes just wasn’t happening.

I first cut my long hair and walked around with a chic pixie look. Shortly after my second chemo round I woke up to a pillow full of hair, then in the shower I shed my hair, I stopped washing it, and then one day I was driving with my mom and I combed my hand through my hair like had done all my life but this time my hand held a ball of hair.

I covered up my shock and looked over to my mom with a smile and said to her it is happening. She reached for my hand and grabbed the hair. She said, “this is mine,” balling it up and sticking it in her bra. I tried my best to make her laugh. I cracked jokes. But I was scared.

My friend came over that weekend and shaved my hair. My husband carried on about his shaved head when he was in the military. He half heartily asked me if I wanted him to shave his head, and I said there is no need for the two of us to walk around pitifully bald.

I was grateful I had Sinead O’connor as a role model as a bad ass woman from the rebellious grungy 90s…I loved the song “Nothing compares to You”. I loved how she teared up when she sang it on her video. I loved her beautiful eyes and bald head. I loved that Prince wrote it for her and the outrage she stirred when she ripped the Pope’s picture on Saturday Night Live. I was 16 years old when I was infatuated with her sense of style, and at 33 I was glad I had her in my consciousness as a rebellious beauty (on a side note, she has recently disclosed she is has a mental illness. I’m not sure what that really says about me).

There were two moments during my journey in which I felt the deepest level of compassion for myself. The first time was on a random day as I was changing clothes and I got a glimpse of myself. I saw a woman I could not recognize. I resembled a Holocaust survivor from the movie Schindler’s List. I paused and took myself in, and in that moment, I realized that I no longer looked the way I used to. I no longer looked like that woman who was never quite right before my own eyes. In the presence of this mirror, I was able to grieve that awkward teenage girl, that insecure young adult, that girl who was always unsure and self-conscious. I asked myself for forgiveness for not accepting and loving myself all along. How could I have missed the beauty all along?

The second major moment occurred when I lost the last of my hair–my eyelashes and eyebrows. I essentially lost all of my recognizable expression. I lost my eyes. I became blank. I looked in the mirror and searched for those dark eyes. All I saw was a face with black balls in sockets. The critical voice inside my head was gone; it was now gentle and kind. It said, “remember what beautiful eyes you have.” My self love was now deep and beyond the physical.

The irony is that in losing my health, my innocence and my hair, I gained self acceptance and compassion. The inner critic with regard to my appearance had died. I was so grateful to be alive and heathy and full of possibility that who cared what I looked like? My job is to be kind and nurturing to my mind, body and spirit. And you know what, I have never felt prettier. When I think of that insecure, self deprecating teenager who spent sleepless nights singing songs from the 90s, I hold her close and whisper loving words to her. I sing “Nothing Compares to you.”

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