It’s been seven long months since I stepped out of a meeting to take my Ob/Gyn's call and learned that I most definitely have cancer. My first reaction was to go back into the meeting. “Yana, listen to me. Fuck. The. Meeting,” my doctor of 20-plus years said. “Call your husband and make your way to my office.” His was the very first appointment in the series of many. I quickly learned that cancer was a bit like me: type A. Cancer liked planning. An archaic day planner gifted on my first official NYU Langone visit was full of events over which I had no control. My own calendar, carefully planned and color-coordinated, was permanently on hold.
My next few months were a blur. Genetic testing. Three surgeries. Consultations. Early on, my best friend told me I need to find time to cry. She had a double mastectomy two years ago, so I took her advice. It’s hard to do at home; my kids — 4-year-old twins — watch me with the intensity of a jail warden. And so I cry in random places at odd times. It’s one frivolity I allow myself. The other one is caring intensely about my hair. It's easy to do, you know; the length of my hair's been my only real measure of the passage of time. Here's a story of that time, and my hair, passing.
I am given a prescription for a wig, which I don't plan to use. I still have my hair. And it looks damn good. I am a short-hair girl who finally decided to grow it out. Bam. Maybe I jinxed myself? I ask if it’s certain that my hair will fall out, and get one of many sketchy answers about chemo affecting everyone differently. Potentially. Possibly. Likely. All these uncertain words are sprinkled gently on me. I go home to read a sickening amount of chemo discussions and make an appointment to get my head shaved when I'm roughly three weeks in. The appointment is at a place I take my twins to get a trim. No John Barrett treatment for my cancer. Nope. I’m not about to go up the Bergdorf elevator and into the mecca of perfect Upper East Side blowouts to get a cancer buzz.
The morning of my appointment I am a complete mess. I have not slept and it shows, yet I insist my husband has failed to support me simply because he hadn’t found time to snap pictures of me before I am to be shorn like a sheep. Halfway through my tearful account of being wronged, David makes me stand in front of the mirror and look at myself. He is right; this is not a good day for my close-up.
I pull myself together and we drive to the haircutting place. It’s full of hardworking Irish women. And I mean Irish — the accent is so thick in the air that I forget I am in Westchester. I disclosed all of my information over the phone, so now Cathy, my kids’ haircut whisperer, is fully prepared. She braids me, her hands light and sure, making row after row of perfect, 8-inch plaits. When she is done, she makes eye contact with the braided me in the mirror, and I nod. Snip, snip her scissors go. My heart beats steady; I make peace with the fact that I am going to have no hair.
My hair gets Zip-locked and handed back to me. It feels heavy in my hand; perhaps my thoughts and regrets about it are nestled in there, as well. I take it home to send to Pantene Beautiful Lengths in hopes my never-dyed locks will offer some comfort to another cancer fighter. But I will go wig-free. I chose this before my skull emerged unblemished and perfectly shaped. My ears, although Vulcan in shape, are neatly tucked. The salon women approve. Sinead O’Connor, they gasp. Cathy baptizes my naked head with pleasantly warm water. She is gentle. Her kindness seeps through her fingers and I want to weep. But I hold it together and smile at my reflection. Not bad, I admit.
This is my preemptive haircut, so I have roughly half an inch of dark, thick growth. I can live like this. I am so preoccupied with my vanity that I almost forget David getting the same makeover. We check his skull and both admit mine is a much finer vessel. We choose to joke about it. I try to pay but Cathy wants nothing from me. I insist. It’s important for me to be treated like everyone else. I crave normalcy. I manage to explain this to her and we hug long and hard. For someone so elfish she gives surprisingly fierce hugs.
Outside is unseasonably warm for the end of January. The sun is warming my scalp, and I feel light both physically and emotionally. We take our new looks out for coffee. I expect stares but get none. Either the world really doesn’t give a shit about my lack of hair, or David is right and I look hot. He even goes as far as to insist we take a picture together and post it with #fuckyoucancer. So we do it. Hey, it gets the point across. I get over a hundred comments in an hour. I get emails. I get calls. I get stories that make me cry. I get offers of free manual labor. I am convinced this was the best way to break the news. Until my mom checks in. Why share, she asks. Why tell everyone? Apparently it’s a faux pas to show your cancer in such public manner. I disagree. It’s cancer, not fucking diarrhea. And I don't want to cover it up. I don't need a wig; I am sick, I am not a bad spy in disguise.
The next couple of weeks go by eventless, at least in the hair department. I start to think I am one of those few who manage to keep their hair through chemo. I even feel slightly embarrassed of my preemptive measures, as if I am pretending to be more sick than I am. As if I am trying to look like one of the kids from Make a Wish. Then, a Sunday in February comes when upon running my hand through my cropped do, I send thousands of tiny hairs everywhere. I mean it rains hair. I climb into a shower, leaving my kids in the tight clutches of Netflix. And now, I can’t get out of the damn shower because my hair won't stop falling out. I am like a Christmas tree in February. I sit and cry. The water beads off me, sending bits of hair all over the tub.
I stay there until the kids call out to me. Netflix timed out. I ask one of them for paper towels and they oblige. It’s fun to tear paper towels. It’s usually not allowed. I dry my head, alone, not wanting the little people to see me like this. Nor do I dare to look at myself in the mirror. The bathroom is full of steam and I postpone my self-assessment. With the amount of hair I shed, I expect to see none. Okay, maybe 20% of it. Come on, I was shedding for like an hour.
When I finally look, I see is a mildly balding woman. In a way, it’s worse. I suddenly look sick. I most definitely do not look hot. I call Cathy hoping she could fit me in for a total shave, but the place is closed. I go to work in a scarf and discretely scratch my itchy skull all day long. Combined with the itchy and, at times, burning sensation on my hands and feet (hi, neuropathy), I am a mess. I literally want to get out of my skin.
By March I’ve shaved my own head four times. Because if I don’t, I look beyond unwell. I look creepy. This colorless chemo fuzz sprouts here and there making me look ancient and newborn at once. My oncologist tells me it’s a lesson in humility. But I’m a terrible pupil; humility is the last thing on my mind when my eyelashes go, closely followed by my eyebrows. One day they are patchy, next they’re like confetti in the sink. I cry without dabbing at my eyes. The more I dab, the more I lose. I try to count them just to preoccupy myself with something. But tears keep coming and it’s time for me to take kids to preschool. They loiter outside the bathroom door, squabbling over something ridiculous. Are you crying, they ask when I emerge. No, I lie. They shift uncomfortably, but I successfully change the subject by making an offering: two squares of chocolate.
My 4-year-old daughter draws hairless people. My 4-year-old son uses “I’m worried” correctly. As in, “I’m worried about you.” Men no longer make eye contact with me unless they must. I am angry. Mind you, I have valid enough reasons for this. I shit blood, my body seems to be made of lead, I itch and scratch like a flea bag and I get hot flashes on every hour — yet I can’t help but zero in on my lack of hair.
By mid-summer, my hair has begun to grow again, slowly, and I have a compulsion to compliment everyone's good hair days. Women have a compulsion to simper and immediately rebuff my compliments, and leave worried they’ve insulted me. I’m not insulted, I’m envious. After seven months without hair, I’m looking forward to a bad hair day.
October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. For more stories about detecting, treating, or living with breast cancer, click here.