I remember it like it was yesterday, my oncologist sitting down with me and explaining my diagnosis and my treatment plan, and saying the words I feared most, “You have cancer. You will need to have chemo and you will lose your hair.” I knew at that moment that my life would change forever. The first time I had cancer I was able to avoid chemo, avoid endless dark days sick in bed, avoid the ports and needles, avoid the scarves and hats. I felt like I had dodged a bullet. I felt so fortunate.
I walked out of her office that day completely terrified. I immediately called my friend who is a photographer and told her I needed family pictures and I needed them now! With an aggressive cancer diagnosis comes an aggresive treatment plan and I had just days before I would start the chemo process. I felt desperate to somehow preserve life as I knew it, life before cancer and chemo. I needed a photograph of me with my long dark hair. I needed proof that my family was happy and healthy and together.
Over the next few weeks my hair became the topic of much conversation. Should I cut it off? Should I shave it off? Will I wear scarves or hats or a wig? How will my kids react? Will people stare? Will I be the same person when my exterior transforms so drastically? I had so many questions and fears. As a woman my hair had always been inextricably linked to my feelings of beauty and femininity. I could not imagine my life without it.
While sifting through photos of my journey this last year, each photo evoked such vivid emotion. As I walked down memory lane, I was struck by my evolving hair, or lack thereof. And I realized that with each stage of my battle, with each changing hairstyle, my perspective had changed. I had changed.
Because if I’m being honest, I loved my long, flowing, wavy hair. It made me feel beautiful. And I could wear it a million different ways; messy bun, braids, ponytail, curly, straight. But I would often complain that it was too dry, or not curly enough. I wished it was longer or straighter or lighter. I would have a bad hairday and it would affect my mood for hours. I lived with a sense that my hair was a right and I somehow deserved for it to always look good. I took for granted that my hair would always be there. My perspective was one of, ENTITLEMENT. I never considered not having it, and didn’t appreciate what I had. I sift through photos of years past and giggle inside as I think about how ungrateful I was. The pictures I once hated of myself I now stare at, longing to look that way again, realizing how little I understood about loss and gratitude and inner beauty.
After processing the fact that I would indeed lose my hair, I grappled with a plan of action. I was reeling with FEAR. While my world was spinning out of control, I focused on the one thing I could control, how I would lose my hair. In those days leading up to chemo I could barely eat or sleep. Every step I took, every thought and breath felt scary and uncertain. My perspective of ENTITLEMENT had quickly shifted to one of FEAR. Life as I knew it was over and what I once took for granted I now feared losing. I decided that before chemo took my long locks, I would just cut them off myself.
Surrounded by friends and family and sparkling wine, I sat in a chair as my vanity fell softly to the floor. One by one, my friends took the scissors and lovingly cut pieces of my hair. And tears streamed down my face, as they are right now, just remembering that day. The immense FEAR I was feeling was tucked just behind the smiles and hugs and laughter. And when the last bit of hair touched the ground, my heart sank and I was too overwhelmed to even look at myself. I excused myself from my Pixie Party and quietly walked to the bathroom, alone. Slowly I touched my head to feel an inch of hair between my fingers, and for the first time I looked in the mirror and sobbed. I sobbed for the scary, dark, uncertain journey I was about to embark on. I was overcome and blinded by FEAR.
That FEAR was real and founded, as they hooked up my port to the drugs that would momentarily destroy my body but save my life. And 19 days after that first round of chemo, as I sat again surrounded by friends, laughing and reminicsing, I ran my hand through my one-inch pixie cut only to come away with a fist full of hair. The laughter came to an abrubt stop as eyes began to water. We all knew the the gravity of the moment. My transformation was beginning and within days I would be bald. I tried my best to laugh, and make light of the situation, but inside I felt such a deep sense of LOSS. Little did I know that my hair was not the only thing I would lose.
Over the next 18 weeks, my deep seated FEAR was overtaken by a perspective of LOSS. With every round of chemo came days and weeks, alone in bed, too sick to move, too sick to eat. My days and nights ran together as I lost all track of time and schedule. The simple freedoms I once enjoyed had been stripped away. My body was losing it’s ability to move and do simple tasks. And I missed my life. I missed eating dinner with my family. I missed sitting on the porch with friends. I missed going to my boxing gym or taking my dog on a walk. I missed making my children’s lunches and tucking them into bed. And each time I looked in the mirror to reveal a bald head and sunken eyes, I mourned and grieved as I could barely recognize the image before me. But this excrutiating reality of LOSS would give me the ultimate perspective, one which I will cherish and keep in both the good and the hard. Because when you are stripped of ENTITLEMENT, and conquer your FEARS, and walk through deep LOSS, you are left with the beautiful gift of GRATITUDE.
As I rang that bell two days ago, signaling the end of my long and treacherous battle with cancer, and the room errupted in applause, my tears of FEAR and LOSS had turned to tears of GRATITUDE. I survived! I am cancer free! My body can move and run freely. I survived the darkest period of my life and each day before my feet hit the floor I thank God for the beautiful gift of life. And I am grateful for the mundane as well as the spectacular. I am grateful for the easy and the hard. I am grateful for the suffering and the joy. I am grateful for the FEAR and the LOSS. I am grateful that I can look in the mirror every day and love the person staring back at me regardless of hair, regardless of what I see in the mirror. Because I truly believe the gift of the hardest year of my life is my changing perspective. The gift is learning to let go and walk in faith. The gift is being stripped of complacency and ENTITLEMENT. The gift is learning I am stronger than my greatest FEAR. The gift is accepting and surviving enormous LOSS. The gift is a hard earned perspective, wrapped in scars and loneliness and pain. It’s a perspective not based on life’s changing circumstances or bad hair days, but rooted in faith and suffering and survival. The gift of GRATITUDE is my beauty from ashes, it’s my testimony, it’s the lens from which I have learned to view everything. And while my hair is slowly growing back, it no longer holds the same power over me. I can truly look in the mirror and be grateful for every hair on my head. Because I know what it is like to lose everything. But in losing everything, I have found that which is most worthy, GRATITUDE.