The disappearing, re-appearing self

The diagnosis of cancer has the capacity to temporarily stop time. It is an unforgiving land mine, that shears normalcy into barely recognisable fragments. During diagnosis and treatment, your body becomes the playing field of specialists, doctors and nurses. For women with breast cancer, a once symmetrical feminine form becomes lacerated, a deconstructed landscape of patchwork flesh demarcated with surgical scars. Flesh is incised and discarded, and in reconstruction, regionally unfamiliar flesh repositioned from stomach, buttocks or back, into mounds on the chest wall. The individual self in familiar feminine form, becomes a new ‘self’ in surgical design. (There is a ABC radio podcast that traces the experience of women in the decision making and post choices across the reconstruction options that is invaluable for ‘real voices’.)
Cancer treatments such as chemotherapy strip femininity from your body, hair by hair. There is a moment when you morph from woman into cancer patient. Individuality is reflected in the style and colour that we keep our hair. Hair, is a kind feature that frames our face, softens our features and hides facial imperfections. Humanity has been fixated upon hairstyling for civilisations. Samson became impotent when his was cut off and Rapunzel was rescued by hers. Most people understand the importance of a great cut and colour. I openly admit beginning a love affair at sixteen, with hair colour, a blow dryer and curling tongs, and flicking back my streaked blonde bangs in the style of Farrah Fawcett Majors. (There are millions of Australian bathrooms, strewn with products that lift, shine, hold, add volume and restrict frizz. We all do our bit to support the retail hairdressing industry.)
My hair began to fall out on day twelve of my first chemo round, and by day 17, I had embraced the bald. It was as if I had inherited a moulting cat, hair appeared on every surface. It even found its way into the fish bowl, which freaked out our solitary goldfish resulting in it, leaping out onto the tiled floor below. A few minutes too late, and Moby would have been fertiliser.
I thought that I was prepared for baldness. My hair had been cut short in preparation for my hair thinning and I had adjusted to my ‘pixie’ cut. However it was only a couple of days before the majority of my hair began falling out by the gentle act of running a comb through it. I pulled out the remaining tuffs and shaved my head with a razor. There I was, exposed, my former image eradicated. I had begun to mourn the death of my image at the reality that I would need chemo. I shed a few more tears after. I am fortunate, I am told, to have a reasonably shaped head, which has no large bumps. (I wonder what a phrenologist would make of my skull?)
I faced the stark reality that I would be bald for 6 months or more. I chose to wear chemo caps, instead of scarves, turbans and wigs ( Seriously, is anyone wearing turbans, since Alexis Carington from Dallas, hung up the terry cloth?) I am making designer versions, which are simple, elegant and feminine. ( Those that know me, will not be surprised to hear this, as I previously designed and manufactured children’s wear and have always accessed creativity to deal with stressful circumstances.)
You can, like an actor, disguise your health state by donning a wig and wearing prosthetics, by resuming normal activities, including work, if you are able. I know of one woman that did just this and only her family and close friends knew of her struggle. Her colleagues greatly admired her new hair cut, which was ironically an expensive wig. My job is too large to consider balancing the stress of corporate organisational goals and saving my life. I am comfortable in my choice.
I am conscious that I do not see other women shopping or walking by the ocean, wearing chemo caps covering their bald heads. I am often surprised by the direct eye contact from others, as they smile and acknowledge my presence, as they pass by. Greg is often looked upon with respect, by other couples that pass us by. It is, as if his loyalty has been publicly acknowledged. I know for some the journey of cancer is taken alone.
I have a wig, yet I have not yet worn it. Not because it is of poor quality, in fact, it is the opposite and comes complete with flesh parting. It is that my own hair is fine and mostly grey, and my wig, is a warm blonde, and luxurious. It is the hair, that I once envied. I cite practical reasons of a unforgiving Australian summer, but truly I am patiently waiting for the tide to come in, bringing back my own less than perfect locks and for my new ‘normal’ self to reappear.


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