Yesterday afternoon I had the biggest meltdown that I've had since receiving my cancer diagnosis. I know that a lot of folks have commented on how brave I am. Or how stoic. Or strong. And in the face of my initial diagnosis, I did seem to be all these things. It was like a door closed when I heard the news "positive for breast cancer" and I immediately went into business mode, trying to learn the jargon, figure out what I needed to do immediately in terms of surgery, treatment options, who I should talk to, how I should break the news to people, when I should tell my grad students, how this would interfere with the wedding shower, with the wedding, with my trip to Okracoke.
I have been business-like throughout most of the diagnosis and surgery and treatment, so much so that I know that folks have been worried about whether I'm in touch with my emotions or whether I'm in denial about all of this. But I knew (and those closest to me know) that this is my M.O. When faced with news of a particularly tragic nature (the death of my favorite uncle, for example) I do not cry--I figure out what I need to do. And then at an unexpected moment, I have my meltdown.
Now, I have had minor breakdowns along the way. Who wouldn't?! There's SO MUCH TO PROCESS. The meeting about the chemotherapy alone was like a clusterfuck in my head--feeling like every part of my female sexuality and feminine identity was being attacked and compromised simultaneously (click here for the blog entry on that particular subject). And it's just stressful--hearing statistics about survival rates and rates of recurrence and all the horrible side effects of chemo and the eventual bi-lateral mastectomy I will have to have. If you try to hold it all in your head at once, you feel like your brain (or heart) is going to explode. So since I'm great at compartementalizing, I've just been letting in what I need to let in, in order to get through on a day by day, week by week basis.
Yet I suspected that the day that would be hardest--the time that would truly have me at the end of my limits, would be today. Because today, I'm going to have Matthew shave of all my hair. Today is when I become bald. Today is when there is no masking the fact that I am a cancer patient. I have cancer.
I know my hair will grow back--many people have tried to reassure me of this fact--I've read books that have reassured me of this fact. And it is, somewhat, reassuring. But that's not all that has me freaked out right now. It's the mark of baldness that means you HAVE CANCER. I mean, of course not all people who are bald have cancer, but here's where gender norms really come into play. A bald man may just have elected to be bald or have male pattern baldness or perhaps he has cancer.
A woman who is bald in public? She has cancer. Or alopecia (the loss of hair that is not going to come back). Or perhaps she is just a woman who is very comfortable in her body and likes to have her head shaved. But seriously? Most women who are bald in public are iconoclasts--and it is one of the biggest badges, markers, and signs that screams I HAVE CANCER.
And while verbally I may be comfortable telling people that I have breast cancer and am going through chemotherapy, it's another thing to have my head betray me through its loss of hair--to have others see me as a cancer patient first rather than my own control and confirmation of my status--my ability to hide or mask my cancer and only reveal my situation when I want to reveal it.
Which is I know what the wigs are for. I mean, they are there for my vanity--I picked them out because I thought they would flatter me--and it's why I particularly love my strawberry syrup wig. But these wigs are also a necessary emotional and mental buffer against me and the world. They are part of my arsenal--part of the protection of my very being--the part that is really terrified with what it means to have cancer and be going through chemo and who has to look ahead, at some point, to a very debilitating surgery that will remove both my breasts and send me to a physical therapist to learn how to be in my body without my breasts.
All of this is anxiety producing and strikes at the most vulnerable part of me. And I know that this is now the public face I show with friends and family and on this blog. But like every other human on this planet, I am fully of the soft mushy stuff that gets frightened and scared and feels absolutely vulnerable and who can't keep it all inside--can't just be strong and stoic and brave.
So I'm not. Not yesterday afternoon when I cried, hysterically, for well over half an hour, just sobbing over and over again, with Matthew by my side, that I didn't want to lose my hair and I was scared and I didn't want to have cancer. And this morning, when I took a shower and tried to wash my hair, as I was lathering up, I literally had clumps of hair in each hand, and I started to leave a big mound of it in the corner of the shower, so that when I was finally done washing my hair and rinsing all the hair off my body, I'd say I left about a 1/4 - 1/3 of my hair in the bathtub. And when I went to dry my hair, as gingerly and tenderly as possible, I found clumps of my hair within the towel. I look absolutely ghastly right now because I have bit patches of hair missing from my scalp. And I called my parents and just cried and cried on the phone with them long distance, because I feel like my heart is breaking. Because I don't want this to be real--and the loss of my hair, the fact that it's coming out in such big clumps, the reality of having it shaved off this afternoon, makes it all very REAL. It makes this cancer absolutely real.
So I sit and wait. Matthew will be off work by 11am and we'll have lunch with Mai, who has agreed to be our official photographer (and I picked Mai because I knew I'd be comfortable having a break down in front of her--you can only pick people you can go really low with and I trust Mai to be able to go really low) and in a few hours I will be bald.
And I'm just incredibly sad. Because I LOVE my hair--I've always loved my hair. I've always felt that my hair was one of my better features and always tried to take care of my hair and always get a great hair cut. But beyond all the vain things associated with my hair, I'm just incredibly sad because this all feels way too real. And I wish it wasn't.