The Secret About My Hair

By on May 10th, 2012 Categories: The Breast Cancer Journey

When I was younger, my grandparents talked about prostate enlargement and pacemaker batteries at the dinner table. I knew exactly which relatives were diagnosed with cancer, which ones had beginning stages of Alzheimer’s, and whose cholesterol levels were dangerously high. There were few medical issues that were too private or too embarrassing to talk about over noodle kugel and chicken soup. Medical issues, one could say, were generally the main topic of conversation in my grandparents’ house.

Despite a childhood of exposure to uncensored medical terminology on a regular basis, the word “cancer” never ceases to shock me. Having gone through it, the word now brings back a flood of memories about uncomfortable and sometimes painful treatments and the fear of premature death. Cancer is not a happy word and not something I’m inclined to talk about out loud.

But sometimes there’s no alternative except to use the big C word. I take the reaction to my new hairstyle as a case in point.

A year ago I had long, thick brown hair. Not naturally brown, but brown nonetheless. Fast forward from a year ago to 6 months later and you can envision a woman in her 40s who is stark raving bald. No hair, no eyebrows, no arm, leg, nose, or armpit hairs, no nothing.  Bald as a baby’s bottom.

Moving along another 3 months, envision a woman with a grayish crew cut and thin-as-pencil eyebrows, and a few emerging arm and leg hairs. Yet another 3 months will bring you to a woman with almost bushy brown eyebrows and short, very thick, very curly brownish grayish hair. Hair so curly and thick that it grows upward like Marge Simpson, rather than down toward the neck. Hair so curly that not even hair gel and a dryer will straighten out the ringlets. Friends I haven’t seen in a while walk right past me on the street.

So back to the main subject of this story, which is whether or not to use the C word in public. I get reactions to my hair everywhere I go, when I meet someone I haven’t seen in at least a month and a half. In response, I find myself in a pickle, deciding whether to react with a:  “Thank you; I love my new afro too.” Or do I react with the ‘too much information’ approach involving full disclosure and a summary of the past year’s roller coaster of chemotherapy and radiation treatments?

A few weeks ago, I was in the elevator with an older man who works in a different department of the government agency where I work. I rarely see him. He said, after a while of silence, “Oh, I didn’t realize it was you. You cut your hair. It looks good!” At that time, I leaned toward semi-open disclosure, mumbling about health issues I had last year, and stated with relief that I was thankful to have hair. He was panic stricken. Profusely apologized. When the elevator doors opened, he practically sprinted out the door.

I realized that the “thank you very much but let me tell you about cancer” approach was not the best idea for brief elevator greetings.

Since that conversation, I have decided to keep mum about the whole thing. Acquaintances I bump into at Stop & Shop just simply do not need to know. All they need to know is that I do have a new crazy hair style and that I am happy with it, thank you very much. No more than that shall be said.

My grandparents would be perplexed at my inclination to keep such an important fact private. It’s a fact of life, they would say, and no reason to be ashamed. But the truth is that I am not ashamed. It is a fact of life. But I do not want to startle and shock people, to lead them to think my days are numbered, when in reality they just want to know the name of my hair stylist.

Some women may lean toward sharing more than others on this subject. The decision likely depends on how close your relationship is with a person. It’s easier to share more information with a long-time work friend than with someone more distant, like your child’s teacher. I invite you to share your experiences in the comment section below.

Laura Wong-Pan is an attorney with Thomas, Drohan, Waxman, Petigrow & Mayle LLP, specializing in employment and labor law, and is a cancer survivor.


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