I do not send Christmas letters, not because I am lazy or too busy, but I rarely have anything newsworthy to share. I am unable to testify to the exploits of talented, gifted, brilliant, amazing, or perfect children, as I have none. I am not the proud owner of a clever pet, such as a chocolate lab that consumed a string of popcorn from the Christmas tree and carefully rearranged the cranberry strand over the bare boughs.
However, this particular year a Christmas letter was in order. There was no delicate way to launch the following bomb: “Dear friends, I have cancer. In the last six weeks, I have endured numerous tests, surgery to remove the offending parts, a grueling round of chemotherapy, and shaved my head. I hope you have had a wonderful year. Merry Christmas!”
I sent this letter to my college friends. We had maintained sporadic contact for 25 years before we planned our first reunion. We had enjoyed our time together as we laughed, reminisced, and caught up on the past; hence, it evolved into an annual event.
This spring, we scheduled our reunion around the best days in my chemotherapy cycle. We rented a spacious home with a hot tub in a quaint town that provided extensive shopping opportunities. In addition to my normal over-packing, I included an assortment of hats and wigs. I was self-conscious of my bald head and determined to keep it covered.
My Google directions wound me along narrow dirt roads, through pungent pasturelands dotted with grazing cattle. Street signs were nearly non-existent. I finally meandered into the secluded subdivision of our luxury residence. The home flaunted cathedral ceilings, a stone fireplace, oak flooring and trim. Floor to ceiling windows overlooked a wooded area, home to red-crested woodpeckers, gray squirrels, and white-tailed deer. A small lake situated beyond the woods echoed our chatter and laughter from the hot tub that evening. I had pulled a white cap trimmed with navy lace over my head.
I was unaware that I had forgotten to cover my bald head.
The following day, rain drizzled intermittently from gray skies as we strode the cobblestone sidewalks of the old town shopping district. A curly lavender wig caught my eye as I browsed the shop windows. A gray-bearded shopkeeper greeted us as we stepped into the dimly lit store. The stout man plucked the wig from its stand and handed it to me. I stood before an antique mirror and carefully pulled off my wig. I repositioned my knit skullcap, tugged the lavender wig over my head, and rearranged the curls. The shopkeeper joined in as we howled with laughter. The purple wig was my prized purchase.
That evening we grilled steaks amidst a driving rain, oblivious to the tornado warnings. After dinner, donned in warm robes and fuzzy slippers, we lounged around the fireplace, warmed by the crackling blaze. I was unaware that I had forgotten to cover my bald head until a chilly breeze brushed my scalp. I shot a quick glance at each face that glowed in the light from the flickering flames. No shocked expressions. No one seemed to notice.
Even without hair, I was the same person. We were the same people. I discovered that our friendship, cemented in the midst of dorm life, remained strong.
Joanie Shawhan, an ovarian cancer survivor, is a registered nurse at UW Health in Madison, WI.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2011.