Written by
Janet McLain
December 8, 2020 3:58 PM

My Armor

The hardest concern for me to admit when diagnosed with cancer was that I was petrified about losing my hair. I could wrap my brain around bilateral mastectomies. Seriously, chop those babies off. Take pounds of flesh. I can rebuild new ones. They will be bigger, better, stronger, faster...the bionic boobs. I could grasp the idea of most chemotherapy side effects. I was scared to be sick, but I could hide that. I could stay home and battle the storm with my closest people and reenter the world when all was better. I could avoid that feeling of being weak before humanity. But hair loss, that is another story. I have always visualized that before we are born, God takes his time to create something special. He doesn’t give everyone every fabulous trait or we would be unbearably conceited. He gives us a few features that will help us along the way. That said, I was at the front of the line at the humor and the hair table. He gave me a healthy dose of fun and a beautiful mane. There are a few other traits that I may have been a bit farther at the back of the line… Needless to say, when the going got tough, my hair was going to be great! Call it my armor. When faced with the fact of losing this armor, I was devastated and embarrassed that I was devastated. Could I really be so vain?! I was fighting for my life here.

Years of helping others through hair loss caused by chemotherapy, radiation, or other medications taught me that vanity was the wrong word. The word is vulnerability. At the most primal level, survivors do not want to be seen as weak, scared, or dependent. We want to put our best face forward to fight this intruder. Our hair is our outward facing sign of health. When we lose it, it takes away our shield and announces to the world that we are sick. A good friend of mine in Colorado uses the “hula hoop” analogy. We all have our own personal boundaries. If you are standing in the middle of a big hula hoop, the only people allowed inside are the ones fortunate enough to be invited in. These people have earned the right to know our deep dark secrets. They know where the bodies are buried! However, hair loss seems to make your hula hoop invisible. Well-meaning people at Target unknowingly gave me the pity stare as I walked hand in hand with my 5 and 11 year olds. I jokingly call them the head tilters as they can’t help but slightly tilt their head when they pity you. You surprisingly want to punch them in the face for feeling sorry for you. We don’t need pity...we are strong...we are surviving! Some are blatant enough to flat out ask, “You poor dear, do you have cancer?” These poor dears make our biggest fear come true. We feel vulnerable.

My aha moment came on a trip to Colorado with my family. I was walking in the mountains by myself having a very large pity party. I was 13 days post Adriamycin/Cytoxin therapy and I knew my shed day was imminent. My scalp had started to become sore and I knew my hours were numbered. Tears, anger, shouting at the boulders, and then calm. At 41 with a triple negative breast cancer, my survival rate without chemotherapy was not promising. It suddenly dawned on me that chemotherapy was my friend. Without it, it was doomsday. With it, I had a fighting chance. Chemo was MY FRIEND. It was going to get me from here to 96 years old. The A/C therapy was in my body killing the cancer cells as I walked. Every single one of those fast growing little piss ants. Fast growing...fast growing...wait a minute my hair is a fast growing cell. Losing my hair was actually a celebration. It means the chemo is in there doing exactly what I asked my friend to do. Celebrate...friend. A novel way of looking at the inevitable. I was surviving. I was celebrating. I was healing.

If you would have told me at the age of 41 when diagnosed with cancer if I were going to wear a wig, I would not only have told you no...I would have told you HELL no! Only old ladies that you saw at the grocery store on aisle 3 with their hair screaming “Wig!” a little crooked, a little brassy, and a lot wiggy was what I envisioned. I was for sure going to wear cool scarves, hats, with the perfect shade of lipstick, hoop earrings. The perfect bohemian look. Right? Personally, I found that wearing the scarves did not get rid of the head tilters. They just filled the void with “cute scarf” while still tilting and pitying. My first wig was just like my own hair. When I put it on, the armor was in place. I felt confident. Normal. For those that know me well, they know that wig was the first of many. I was the Imeldo Marcos of wigs. I named them all trampy names (Skye, Trix, Nora, Brandy, Ginger, Bambi) and wore them like accessories to have the cutest hair for the outfit. My youngest son would ask me who was picking him up from school? I would answer with the wig I planned to wear that day. HIs favorite pick up gal was Skye...she had a lot of sass.

Coming to terms with hair loss is different for everyone. Shifting from having something taken away to having something to celebrate made a huge difference in my outlook. A great outlook breeds healing. Whether you wear scarves, hats, wigs, halos with accessories, hats with hair, or sport your own natural noggin’, understanding your vulnerability, finding acceptance, and embracing positivity will do nothing but enhance your survival. In the voice of Skye, “Rock it, sister!”

Because I have been there,

Janet McLain