Before I got cancer, I kept my hair quite long. I was the type that would freak out when my hairdresser cut it too short, which I considered anything above my shoulders.
I loved my hair. It was my shield – it protected and sheltered me. I connected it very closely with my sense of femininity and sensuality. When I was diagnosed and knew that I had to undergo chemo, losing my hair was one of the moments I feared most.
In an effort to gain control in a situation where I felt like I had close to none, I decided to shave my head the night before chemo. Leading up to that evening, I wrote a letter to my hair:
Hello my lovely hair,
Have I ever told you how much I love you? I think I have, but just in case I haven’t said it enough – I love you.
You are absolutely beautiful. I love how dark you are. I love how silky you look and feel. I love how you look down and in a ponytail. I love the way you slip out of place during yoga and blow all crazy in the wind.
Thank you for your patience while I went through my blonde phase. I don’t know what that was about. I know the constant hair colouring was irritating, especially since I was trying to change you when you were beautiful just the way you were. But I realized my error quickly enough!
I have loved traveling with you. I hope you have enjoyed seeing the world. It’s amazing to think of all that you have seen and felt – sand from various beaches, water from so many oceans and lakes and (most recently) earth all the way from South Africa. Didn’t the wind feel great? I knew you would love it when I let you down in the jeep to blow in the African wind. I think that might have been one of my happiest moments with you. Wild and free, just like the animals. It makes me smile just thinking about it.
We’re going to be saying goodbye to each other soon for a little while. It won’t be forever, but I wanted you to know that I will miss you like crazy. I won’t be the same without you. Not only are you beautiful, you’re my armour. I always felt confident with you there.
I hope you come back exactly as you are right now – dark brown (almost black), straight, silky, full (but not too full). I wouldn’t change a thing about you. I love you so much. I’ll miss you. Come back soon!
A close friend came over to shave my head and we expected tears and sadness. Instead, there were moments of laughter. Mom managed the playlist and poured the champagne when it was over. #champagnemakesthingsbetter When I look back on that night, I feel as though something in me both broke and was reborn. In that moment, a big part of my innocence was lost. That can be said for many of the experiences you must endure while battling cancer, but that one sticks out in my mind. To have the courage to shave your head… It’s a powerful thing. It’s a way of both losing and reclaiming your power. I’ve always known that we become stronger at the places where we break and I experienced it first hand that night. I’ll never be exactly like the girl I was before I shaved my head and that thought empowers me.
My hair didn’t fall out until after my second chemo. I don’t think many people realize that losing your hair is a very slow and painful process. It fell out in the shower in large clumps. I would stand there in tears and watch as my hair poured down the drain. I was terrified to step out and look in the mirror – I knew one day I would come out completely bald.
For weeks I couldn’t touch my scalp. It hurt to lay my head on my pillow and I would wake up each morning to more strands of hair covering my sheets. It seemed endless.
Eventually the pain subsided and the clumps stopped falling. I was not left with a completely bald head like I had anticipated. I had what I called an ostrich head – bald, but with random hairs scattered on my scalp. Lovely!
Style Side Note: I think it’s extremely important for women to find what works for them during treatment. I put a lot of thought and searching into my chemo look. I purchased wigs, but didn’t enjoy wearing them because they were itchy and made me overheat. I was lucky enough to find a shop on Etsy that I loved. The designer sold comfortable yet fashionable chemo hats in a variety of pretty colours and patterns.
In 2015, I came across the #NoHairSelfie campaign and was enraged. For those who don’t know, it encouraged people to use a filter on their selfies that would make them bald (like a chemo patient). As I perused the plethora of selfies, I saw a red. The people looked so happy. They were commenting on how they looked bald – whether they felt cute or ugly. I couldn’t believe that this campaign was created… And by a hospital no less. What stunned me more was that all the participants didn’t seem to see the insensitivity of their actions and comments. I assumed that they were ignorant to the fact that they were glamorizing chemotherapy, although to this day I don’t understand how it went unnoticed. I wrote a blog about the campaign (full post at this link).
My hair grew back quickly, and I thank my Italian roots for that. I purchased headbands and loved wearing them to bedazzle my growing peach fuzz. I had the same haircut I did when I was one-year-old and my buzzcut matched my father’s hairstyle.
Breast cancer caused me to reflect on sexuality and femininity in various aspects – hair being a major one. Society displays the ideal woman as having long, luscious, wavy tresses. Don’t get me wrong – that hairstyle is gorgeous. But not fitting the mold made me sad at times. Once again, I felt “other.” Instead of thinking of society, I thought of myself. How did I feel with short hair? What emotions did it bring out in me? Once I looked inward and stopped comparing, the answers came easily. I felt empowered, strong and beautiful. Transformed. I still do.
I’ll admit that I feel more exposed with short hair. In moments of shyness or uncertainty, I don’t have my hair to hide behind. That has turned out to be both a good and a bad thing.
I’m sure I’ll grow it out one day, but for now I’m truly enjoying the short style. I feel like it gives me confidence in a way that my long hair didn’t.
It might sound crazy, but sometimes I toss my head and go to brush my long hair away from my face. At first, this phantom motion hurt my heart – I was obviously still mourning what I had lost. Now? I smile and send a bit of love to the person I was before and thank my hair for coming back to me.
A little while after chemo, I went to pick up a package from the UPS store. The gentleman asked for ID to confirm who I was. I handed over my licence, which I forgot had a picture of me with long hair. At this point, I had super short hair but more than a shaved head. He looked at my licence and back up at me and said, “Oh my gosh! Your hair is so much shorter. It looks great. That must have been quite an adjustment!” I smiled from ear to ear, beaming because he didn’t realize why my hair was so short. I had slipped under the radar and could just be me. No cancer questions, tilted puppy dog sad faces or pitiful looks. I smirked at him and said, “You have no idea.”
Cassandra Umbriaco is a guest blogger for Rethink Breast Cancer. Since being diagnosed with stage two breast cancer at 28 years old, she combines her love of writing with a passion to help women affected by cancer. Check out her blog at cancerunder30.wordpress.com
Cassandra loves travelling as much as she can, dresses that twirl, anything Disney and her little red Fiat – Luna.