The year I turned 19, I married my first love, we bought our first home together, and shortly before our first anniversary, I found out I had ovarian cancer.
The diagnosis was shocking — I was young, in excellent health, and had never had any major health problems. At first I was in denial. The doctors were wrong; they had mixed up test results, they wanted to experiment on me, they made a mistake. But they weren’t wrong; I had malignant ovarian cancer. It was time to prepare for the biggest fight of my life.
I was still under the effects of anesthesia when I found out that the tumor was indeed malignant, so hearing the word cancer didn’t have too much of an effect; the tears of my mother were more upsetting. I remember hearing her cry as I slipped back into blissful, opiate-induced sleep.
Recovering from surgery was horrible –I’d never known such pain. Still, it didn’t hit me. Being discharged and given my appoint for my visit with oncology was scary, but still, it hadn’t hit me. Sitting in the oncology office, speaking with the doctor and the chemo nurse, I suddenly started to feel panicky. As we were discussing the side-effects of chemo, I asked the nurse, “Will my hair fall out?” She told me it would. All at once, it hit me: I have cancer. I am 19 years old, and I could die before my mother. I finally broke down. It finally hit me.
It was the thing about my hair. The nurse was compassionate as she suggested I cut it off. My hair; my long beautiful hair — It was part of being young, being pretty, being feminine and sexy. It was youth, innocence; it was health.
I refused to cut my hair. After chemo started and set its nastiness into my body, my hair began to fall out. A little on the pillow, then a little in the shower, and then a huge clump while I was brushing it at a friend’s house. Still,I refused to cut it. I felt like a weird, feminized, cancer-ridden version of Samson — to cut my hair would be the last of my strength. I couldn’t do it, so I let chemo take its course. The hair was just one part, the outer most symbol of the ravages of chemotherapy.
Eventually, I was bald. I had a wig custom made, and I hated it. It was hot and too thick. I wore it for other people, so they wouldn’t have to feel uncomfortable at the sight of a bald 19 year old girl. I wore it to stop the stares in public, to keep the whispers at bay, to avoid the snickers and accusations, as if being bald was in some way sinister.
To me, that wig was a symbol– hate for my disease, shame at losing my hair, shame at being bald, at being sick, sadness for putting my loved ones through hell. I was supposed to be vibrant and beautiful, a newlywed, a woman on the verge of endless possibilities. That wig was a weight on me. Eventually, I let my brothers take scissors to that wig and cut it into a spiky Tina Turner hairdo. We laughed so hard, so long … and that decided it. No more wig; no more shame. I would fight. I would laugh and make jokes about my cancer and my bald head; I would use humor as a weapon instead of tears. Once I started laughing, the people around me did too. My brother brought me a git, a souvenir hat that read “I Love Fishing” across the bill. He dared me to wear it and dared anyone to laugh. I wore it with pride, and beamed at the bravery of my family. My family and friends rallied around my spirit and wrapped me in theirs. We fought the tears and heart break with humor and love.
Cancer is a disease that goes beyond the now and reaches far into the future. I was 19 a long time ago, and even now in my 30s, I feel the effects of that disease. I can’t have children. I have still hot flashes. The initial surgery, chemo, and subsequent surgeries took a toll on my body, and although I am healthy, I deal with many things I shouldn’t have to think about for another 20 years. And then there is the fear. Will it come back? Maybe it will. If it does, I will fight again.
Though I do not live in that fear, others do. I find people hesitant to talk about cancer and treatment; they want to know about it, but they are afraid it will hurt me, they are fearful that it will bring up bad memories, make me sad, bring a terror of cancer down on their own family. I open up to them with the story of my hair. I tell them how it fell out, how I wouldn’t cut it, how I cried. At first I see pity and sadness in their eyes, but by the time I get to the part about the Tina Turner wig and the fishing hat, not only are they laughing, but they see: Laughter is what helped me get through, and laughter is how I help others. It really is good medicine. And each time, I hope that they will carry that laughter with them, hang on to it, use it when they are faced with cancer, and remember that while it’s perfectly normal to cry and mourn, laughter is strong medicine, hair or no hair.