by Nicole Patterson
My hair didn’t come out all at once or in big clumps like I had heard about from others enduring chemotherapy treatments. It fell out gradually, strand by strand. I found my hair everywhere – on my clothes, my pillow, the back of the couch, the bottom of the shower. I had a generous quantity to start with, and for a long time no one noticed. “Thank goodness you haven’t lost your hair,” I would hear from a well meaning friend.
“No, haven’t lost it … yet,” I would reply. I knew the “yet” was coming.
When my scalp started becoming uncomfortably visible, a shorter haircut and some volumizing hair product bought me some more time. Day by day, I was constantly shedding hair. Without a hat, I stood naked. The futile hair that covered the top of my head was nothing more than comic relief. As if finding clothes wasn’t frustrating enough, now I had to coordinate a hat into the outfit.
For as long as I can remember, my hair has been part of my identity. It was long, thick, and golden blond.
After dressing each day, I would diligently attempt to curl the scraps of hair that encircled my head like a wreath. Always careful, gentle, “Oh no, there goes some more.”
For as long as I can remember, my hair has been part of my identity. It was long, thick, and golden blond. It billowed around me when I needed confidence. I hid behind it when I couldn’t look the world in the eye. I flipped it when I felt flirty and pulled it back when I wanted to be serious.
“Long blond hair” was the phrase that others most often used to describe me. I spent a good chunk of each day washing it, grooming it, styling it, discussing it, and worrying about it.
Now, it lay in a pile on the bathroom floor.
Nicole with daughter Audrey
As I slowly raised my gaze to the mirror, I looked at my newly bald self for the first time. Touching exposed scalp, I felt both afraid and free. Like leaping from a high cliff into a cold pool of water, there was no turning back. I had dreaded this moment, hoped it wouldn’t have to come to this. Now I could only move forward.
I floated into the master bedroom where my three young children lay sprawled on the floor watching a loud cartoon. “Well guys, what do you think of my new ‘do?”
My four-year-old son scrambled to a seated position. His wide eyes swelled with tears. “Put your hair back on right now,” he burst out in a terrified voice.
My daughter’s initial shock turned to giggles. She pointed and covered her mouth. “You look like Daddy,” she teased.
In contrast, my two year old looked up from his cartoon for a moment, and then he turned his attention back to the TV without saying a word.
Chemotherapy had waged war against the cancer in my body. My hair was a civilian casualty. Over the past six months, I had watched my hair leave me. I had grown tired of clinging to scraps, so that morning I took the plunge with my husband’s electric clippers. After the initial unveiling to my children, I returned to the bathroom and stood staring at the strange woman in the mirror.
“Mom, why are you sad?” my daughter Audrey asked as she wandered in. “Well, Mommy just feels a little bad about losing my hair.”
She wrinkled her eyebrows at me. “Why do you feel bad?” she asked. “You’re still the same mommy. Hair is just toppings.” She hugged me tightly and fluttered away.
I looked again at the mirror. Then I saw her, a beautiful woman without hair, a loving daughter, sister, wife, and mother. A woman, raw, daring to look at herself with nothing to hide behind. Someone who had taught her daughter to look at inner beauty, even when she couldn’t always see it.
From then on, I began to define myself apart from my hair. I asked myself,
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Nicole Patterson is a 32-year-old Hodgkin lymphoma survivor. She was diagnosed and treated for cancer during her fourth pregnancy and had a healthy boy. A former English teacher, Nicole loves to write about her experiences with cancer.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2009.