Last February, I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Two weeks later, it was removed by an incredibly skilled surgical team at UCSF. They did the surgery Friday afternoon and I walked out (slowly) Sunday morning.
The surgery was the easy part. The months of dealing with steroids, radiation and chemotherapy were miserable. (My hat is off to those before me who’ve gone through this; to those who come after, I wish you a speedy recovery and a good sense of humor.) Thank goodness I have great friends for support and assistance, and an incredible team at ACEs Connection who kept things going for the two weeks I was out and were so very patient as I had to cut back my normal workaholic hours. The work I love — working with you good people of ACEs Connection and the ACEs movement — took my mind off the misery.
But that’s not all I want to address in this post.
What I want to address is the moment, when I was brushing my hair, that a chunk of it flew across the bathroom, as well these months after that. Even though I’d been expecting it, until you actually start down that road that you’re not particularly looking forward to traveling, you can put the experience in the tomorrow box. Like all other things we put in the tomorrow box, such as exercising or losing weight or real self-care, it’s pretend-real: You can imagine it so completely that it seems real, but you don’t have to actually DO anything.
In my case, the hair-loss transition was more of a stop-and-start affair instead of a sudden immersion. My radiation oncologist, bless him, said that a colleague had come up with a way of focusing the radiation to minimize hair loss because they knew that (mostly) women were upset about going bald. Only the hair across the part of the scalp that was actually under the radiation beams would fall out.
I’m not sure that retaining some hair actually helped. I ended up with a modified mohawk: no hair on one side and across a big swath of the top back of my head, with some remaining on the back and on one side. At first, I attempted to keep the mohawk, which I had my stylist cut to about an inch long, and had her make some designs in the areas that had some hair. What a joke.
Through this process, though, I realized just how attached I was to my hair, even though it was only three to four inches long (it’s been years since it flowed down my back in thick tresses). For decades, I spent oodles of money and time tending that mop. I arranged my life around hair appointments, and booked them out two or three months in advance to make sure my stylist was always available.
I wasn’t conscious about how I had let my hair define me: as a girl, as a woman, or as a particular type of woman (conservative combed-down hair, messy hair, unkempt hair, pixie hair, long-tresses-tossed-in-the-wind hair).
Sick of the mohawk and my futile attempt at being cool (it’s probably not a word that a 70-year-old woman need worry about aspiring to), I took the plunge and strode into a local barbershop. Well, I walked back and forth in front of it a couple of times to screw up the courage to stride in. The barber’s surprise was pretty well masked — a paying customer is a paying customer, after all.
“What would you like me to do?” he asked.
“Take it off so that it’s all close to my scalp,” I answered.
“A ‘one,’ a ‘two’?”
What the hell is a “one”? Or a “two”, for that matter? He saw the look on my face and said, “How about I start with a “one-and-a-half”?”
The mohawk came off. The few patches of hair came off. I had a buzz cut.
It took a few days to get used to it. Friends told me that it looked good. They said I was lucky to have a round head with no dents. It looked like a normal buzz cut from the front. The back was still a bald streak from the radiation, with the surgical scar in the center, but I didn’t have to look at it. Because when you have a buzz cut, you don’t have to do a damn thing to your hair. You never have to look at it, comb it, bend forward at the waist and shake it out to plump it up during the day, worry about getting rained on or about the wind messing it up.
You just get up, shower, get dressed. That’s it. You don’t even have to use shampoo. No conditioner. When you’re traveling, you can even use the little shampoo bottles in the hotel rooms. There’s no such thing as frizzy hair with a buzz cut.
Two visits later, I had him take it down to a “one.”
This was a kind of freedom I had no idea existed. Many women already know this, but it was all new to me. I could stride into any barbershop and say, “Give me a ‘one’,” and they’d know what I meant. No appointment necessary. The barbers I’ve been to have always been great, complimented me on my nice-shaped head (as they do anyone who’s done this, I’m sure). The barber in Gualala, CA., where I went on vacation, has been living with pancreatic cancer for 14 years. “They can’t figure out why I’m alive,” he says. As he finished clipping a "one" across my head, he said, “No charge.” His policy was free haircuts for anyone who’s dealing with cancer. And it was my birthday, no less.
The biggest surprise of the buzz cut was how it unexpectedly pushed me into what people call post-traumatic growth. Because of my ACEs, standing out or being noticed has been a trigger — my amygdala screams that it’s a dangerous place to be. When I was a child, being noticed resulted in physical, emotional and sexual abuse. I preferred being that fly on the wall (a perfect position for a print reporter).
But now my head broadcast where I was in life and what I was dealing with. I couldn’t hide my disease from the world. I could never wear a wig or a scarf, because the radiation made my head so hot that wearing anything except a mesh baseball cap to ward off the sun would practically give me heat stroke.
People notice and remember me. The barber always waves at me when I walk past the shop. The checker at the supermarket yells out a hearty, "Hello!" even when I'm not in his line (he has a buzz cut, too). Yesterday, a waitress at a place I go to from time to time said to me, “You like the booth, right?” She never said that when I had my previous hairstyle.
But this experience has shown me that people empathize, they care, they’re not out to get me, and that my buzz cut is a great conversation starter. Remarkably, it’s loosened the binds of distrust to help me experience that most strangers, or people of brief acquaintance, are kind, want to chat and like to help, like another checker at the supermarket who told me about a new brand of cereal made with turmeric. Although I knew all this in theory, until I had the buzz cut, I didn’t let myself open to the experience or to trust the experience — and the people — when it happened.
At this point, most of my head has grown hair. My “one” is probably a “two” now. I’m due for another visit to the barbershop. I may grow it to a "three", but I’m keeping the buzz cut. I like the extra time, the freedom from having to think about hair, the cost savings.
And I also like this: #IamNOTmyhair