Why Losing My Hair Scared Me More Than Breast Cancer

Photographed by Lydia Hudgens.
Being diagnosed with breast cancer is a strange experience. One second, you feel fine — great, even — and then you find a lump. The lump doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t make you feel bad. They stick a needle in you, and you wait a week for the results. Then you find out it’s cancer. You don’t live under a rock, so you know that this thing inside of you can kill you. You know what’s coming next. Your only hope for survival is going to be these treatments — surgery, chemotherapy — that are going to save your life but make you feel worse than you’ve ever felt before. Hearing you have cancer is one of the scariest things, but maybe not for the reasons you think.

I read about an extensive study of what passes through women's minds when they receive the news that they have breast cancer. Their number-one fear is hair loss. Fear of dying comes in second.

When I was diagnosed at the age of 29, back in September of 2012, the world of blogging was like the wild, wild West. I had a little baby fashion blog. I used that blog to tell everyone I had cancer and, in short order, my fashion blog became a cancer blog.

I wrote about the moment I was told it was CANCER and the fact that my first thought was Oh, shit, please no, I don’t want to lose my hair. I pretended I was thinking about survival while secretly crying myself to sleep every night about my hair.

I Googled the crap out of breast cancer, but also hair loss from chemo. Was there anything I could do? Was there any way to save my hair? Maybe I was just distracting myself with something that was manageable, because thinking about your own mortality is not. But it didn’t feel that way. All I sincerely cared about was my hair.

Breast cancer was systematically demolishing anything and everything that had ever made me feel hot or sexy.

What I found on the internet was horrifying. Pictures of women crying over handfuls of hair, instructions on how to tie a headscarf into a flower. Has anything ever screamed "I have cancer" louder than a headscarf tied into a flower? My long hair (plus at least one of my breasts) was going to be gone — and, based on the pictures online, I was going to look terrible.

I soothed myself with a gorgeous wig. It was thick and long and straight. Better than my naturally wavy and slightly anemic hair. It was the hair I had always dreamed of, and I was weirdly excited for the excuse to wear it, or at least I did a good job convincing myself I was.

But, man makes plans, and God laughs. I started chemo and got a horrible case of folliculitis. My hair would fall out every three weeks, then grow back, then fall out again. My head was so sensitive, I couldn’t even wear a scarf, let alone a wig. Even worse, my skin looked like that of the pimple-faced teenager I had never actually been. Somehow, it also managed to be incredibly dry and wrinkled, and heavy bags sprouted under my eyes overnight. My doctor told me that chemo can attack collagen; the fake menopause I was experiencing would cause “signs of aging." The chemo demolished my metabolism, while also damning me to a diet of white carbs — all my fragile digestive system could handle. The steroids made me bloated, added cystic acne to the mix, and, as a fun bonus, made me super angry all the time. Plus, I was meeting with surgeons and making plans to cut my breasts off. Breast cancer was systematically demolishing anything and everything that had ever made me feel hot or sexy.
Photo: Courtesy of Dena Stern.
I made a Pinterest board (baldspiration) and started wearing a lot of cat-eyes and red lipstick. When I went out in public (whenever my immune system allowed), I shamelessly flaunted my heavily faux-tanned cleavage and wore lots of blingy statement necklaces (it was 2013!). I looked like Amber Rose.

Then I realized why nobody ever talked about this whole beauty/cancer thing. It was because of this reaction I kept getting: “Wow, Dena, you look amazing. You look so good with a bald head… But, I can’t believe you’re doing all of this. I can’t believe you care so much about how you look when you’re battling for your life.”

I was being shamed (albeit in the form of a compliment) for trying to look good. Trying to be pretty, to be feminine, is something that some people in our society don't seem to condone. Don't believe me? Look at the makeup trolls who torment beauty bloggers on Youtube and Instagram right now.

Well, I care about how I look. It’s taken me a long time and a lot of cancer to be able to admit that so openly. I want other people — my husband, my friends, my ex-boyfriends, strangers — to think I'm beautiful. I was relatively blessed before cancer with a few things that helped me to pretend that I didn’t care about looks while simultaneously and secretly reveling in the ways that I was actually conventionally attractive. I could pretend I wasn’t trying that hard.

I learned nobody even notices you don’t have eyelashes if you wear a nice swoop of liquid eyeliner.

Being bald changed all of that. Without my hair, and while “battling for my life,” any attempts to wear makeup or dress up clearly spoke of this dreaded “trying.” There was no effortless beauty. Everything took effort. Getting out of bed to brush my teeth took effort. Eating food without throwing up took effort. Of course putting on a perfect cat-eye and red lipstick took effort — monumental, heroic effort.

Sometimes, when I was in chemo, putting on eyeliner and taking a selfie was all I accomplished in a single day. This small act made me feel like a human being and not a petri dish of cells and poison. It kept me connected to the outside world while I lived in my immune-system-exile bubble. It connected me to other women facing the same thing — women who said they were less scared because of how I documented my journey. It gave me a strangely inspiring purpose.

People with cancer thanked me for writing about skin care and wearing red lipstick and taking almost daily pictures of growing my hair out. I wasn’t curing cancer, but I was making people with cancer feel better, and that made me feel like maybe there was actually a reason that all of this crap was happening to me.

Photographed by Lydia Hudgens.
So I shared — possibly overshared. I learned that when your eyebrows fall out, there are stencils to draw them back in again. I learned nobody even notices you don’t have eyelashes if you wear a nice swoop of liquid eyeliner. I learned the most effective ingredients to treat acne and also aging skin. I got extensions, and then I copied what Charlize Theron did when she was growing her hair out after Mad Max.

My hair is to my shoulders now. Luck has put me on pace with this whole lob thing, so that my hair is somehow magically on trend. My skin-care routine is rock-solid. My eyelashes and eyebrows have grown back. As I write this, I am recovering from a mastectomy and have two different-sized breasts and one nipple. I still show a lot of cleavage.

My best friend once told me that getting cancer was going to end up being the best and the worst thing that ever happened to me. She was right. The whole world opened up to me when I got cancer. Gratitude blossomed inside of me like a flower. I get to inspire people to seek out their beauty. But I still think long hair, smooth skin, and big (symmetrical) boobs are hot. I still want them. I just know now that I don’t need them.

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