Bald, Wigged or Whatever

When you have breast cancer, it's OK if you just want to focus on the thing where you save your life

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I caught a few minutes of Megyn Kelly interviewing breast cancer survivors on "Today" yesterday. The main conversational concern seemed to be how they managed to find the right wigs. I couldn't stick around long. I had to turn it off.

It reminded me too much of day one at the cancer hospital where I first sought treatment for my date with breast cancer destiny. I'd just been diagnosed with an advanced and aggressive form of the disease, and had been told it required swift action. I was reeling. Scared for my life. But I was also spring-loaded and bent on surviving.

I wasn't thinking about my hair or my boobs, I was trying to figure out how to keep on sucking air. But there I was, getting ready to go to war, and my nurse navigator wanted to talk about wig fittings, prosthetic bras and booking me for a free makeover program called something like, Please Put on Blush, You're Scaring the Kids™.

Words such as "wig" and "makeover" streamed out of her mouth like total non sequiturs. I had trouble comprehending what she was saying and asked her to repeat herself. It was all so confusing. I was ready to do THE THING, not do my makeup. Just give me the knife, the poison and the fire. Let's get on with it. Don't talk to me about no stinkin' wigs or how to pad my bra.

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But in the following weeks, the non sequiturs just kept on coming. I was ushered into plastic surgery offices around Boston to flip through "look books" of various implant types and sizes. Did I want nipple reconstruction or a 3-D tattoo? Did I want Kardashian-style silicon implants, or to harvest the fat from my butt and belly to make something more "natural"? The silver lining of the latter, I was told, was that I'd get a "free" tummy tuck and butt lift along with the mastectomy. (Me and my pear-shaped self took a hard pass. ICUs are way scarier than swimsuit season.) I was also asked: Did I want to try a space-age cold cap to keep my hair from falling out? I gave that another hard pass because I despise being cold and secretly feared my melon was way too big for the gadget to fit anyway.

I'm struggling to put a pink bow on my thoughts right now, but here's the closest I can get: The terrifying on-ramp to my surgery and treatment was wholly shaped and consumed by a cultural need for me to look a certain way. Now that the dust has settled, I can't believe how totally whacked those priorities were. I didn't need a nice lip gloss or a wig fitting, I needed help figuring out how to financially keep afloat. How to eat for optimal healing. How to not drown in guilt and shame. How to grieve.

I'm not arguing that wigs and makeovers can't be important pathways to emotional healing for many women facing cancer. There is catharsis and power in the rituals of beauty. I feel more like myself again now that my hair has grown back and I have eyebrows. Yes. It all matters eventually. And to my sisters in arms, I say, girls, you do whatever it takes.

But I wish all the cosmetic stuff had been elective and not foundational to the language of my treatment. The care that I received assumed my value is primarily decorative and that my values are therefore surface-driven. My care forgot that beneath my gender, I am a human being and a spirit.

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I never did go for my wig fitting. I ordered a few cheap ones on Amazon that I wore approximately twice for about five minutes on Instagram. Chemo made my scalp feel like a million fire ants were dancing on my head, so I sported the Kewpie doll look for over a year. Sometimes I wrapped an old T-shirt around my head or wore soft winter hats that loving friends knit me. But mostly, I walked through the world with the same bald head I came into it with.

And for a while, despite all of the pain and sickness I was going through, it all felt like a respite from my deeply ingrained body image bullshit. I definitely didn't look good, and I definitely didn't feel better for a long time. And that is actually quite OK. I was doing what needed to be done.

I just want other women to know that if you're facing a diagnosis, it's OK if you just want to focus on the thing where you save your life: bald, wigged, faux-hawked, fully tressed or whatever. Besides, you can throw lip gloss on pain and suffering, but that's all it is—gloss. And, if you're like me, it's just gonna end up on your front teeth anyway.

It's Breast Cancer Awareness month, in case you haven't noticed a surge of pink-frosted, ribbony everything literally everywhere. I've already gotten the ultimate official memo about it, but I still personally need the help remembering that even though I'm out of the woods, I'm not out of the wilderness. I need to keep up the work that cancer started for me, the practice of getting out of the mirror, and getting on with my life. So, thanks for that, Megyn Kelly. Job well done.

Tags: well being