But I’m Not Bald
I have been surrounded by beautiful and stylish women all my life. My mom is radiant and has always known how to put together effortless, stylish, and timeless fashions. She’s so good, she was once employed to be a personal shopper.
One day many years ago, my stunning cousin showed up to campus during finals wearing a beautiful dress even though she was sick. I asked her how she put herself together so well and she responded, “when I don’t feel well, I dress up to make myself feel better.”
As I reflect on that it makes me think of war paint. According to encyclopedia.com, Native Americans have used body paint to psychologically prepare for war and for visual purposes. It served to rally themselves for battle and frighten their enemies. Other sources cite that war paint has been used as camouflage or protection from the elements.
While I don’t always get it right, I also believe I am beautiful and have a good sense of style. I’ve never worn a lot of makeup but have always wanted my hair done well and to wear just the right outfit. I also truly enjoy eyelash extensions.
I received my first diagnosis of cervical cancer on April 4, 2017. Since then, the cancer has spread via my lymph nodes and new tumors have popped up on my spine and ribs. Each time I’ve received a new diagnosis, my initial instinct is to change some part of my physical appearance.
The first time I was diagnosed, despite being told I likely wouldn’t lose my hair, I cut it short to prepare. I was going to have chemo and that’s what happens, right? People get cancer, they go through treatment and they lose their hair.
After my first diagnosis, I also insisted on getting my first tattoo. I became obsessed and stepped into many tattoo shops desperately seeking someone who had the time to work on me. I was clear about what I wanted – the phrase, “just breathe,” on my wrist.
I finally relented and made an appointment. My mom, brother, and sister accompanied me to the shop, and somehow we all decided we would get another tattoo – the outline of a heart.
Before mine, the stereotypical burly tattoo artist made fun of the heart tattoo. He commented something along the lines of “what are you dying or something.” To which I replied, “I was just diagnosed with cancer.”
After the awkwardness, we were all able to get our heart tattoos and laugh together.
A few days later, my husband got a tattoo of the word Imagine with a heart outline above the second “I.” They all did it to show their love and support and it felt wonderful. The tattoo artist politely asked that we didn’t return unless we wanted something more unique.
I finished my first round of treatment – chemotherapy, internal radiation, and external radiation- in about 7 weeks and shockingly I did NOT lose my hair.
In fact, apart from the visible exhaustion, I looked fine. I didn’t lose my hair and I didn’t lose any weight. People around me constantly commented on my appearance. I heard things like, “but you look so good,” and “you haven’t lost your hair”, and even, “I was just so afraid of what you’d look like, but thankfully you’re ok.” It was–and still is– hard for me to not internalize "You look great so you should be good and capable." like, suck it up buttercup.
In the beginning, I still pushed through even though I wasn’t great. I thought to myself, “I’m not as sick as others because I haven’t lost my hair. I don’t have any visible scars. There aren’t pictures of me laying in a hospital bed hooked up to wires.”
For the first 10 months after my initial treatment, I jumped back into being a wife, a mother to my toddler, a sister, friend, and co-worker. I ignored the signs that my body was desperately trying to give me to rest and was constantly reminded of how good I looked.
Then, a year to the date of my first diagnosis, I received the news that my cancer had spread. This time my first instinct, related to my appearance, was to purchase and wear a lot of makeup. My war paint to shield me from the stark reality of facing another round of treatment – and the reality that my cancer would continue to recur.
Since then, I’ve had three additional diagnoses. I’ve gotten additional tattoos, different haircuts, new clothes, and some makeup. I’ve started to acknowledge and understand a little more why I wanted to change my appearance, but it hasn’t stopped me from doing it.
Each time my body completes another round of treatment, I have very conflicting feelings. Part of me wants to honor my body and allow it to rest. Another part of me wants to jump right back into life and savor every day that I have. And, I still haven’t lost my hair. People continue to comment on my physical appearance.
“You look so great. You must be feeling great, too.” While I recognize that these comments are meant with kindness, they are so hard for me. I am living with an atrocious disease. I am working hard to treat the disease and heal from it. Even if/when my appearance looks good, my body and mind are often suffering.
And, honestly, sometimes I still want to look great and be complemented. I take pride in my appearance and when I’m feeling my lowest I sometimes put on a great outfit to try and make it seem as if I am ok. I also don’t always want my life just to be cancer. If I dress up maybe I can forget as easily as others around me do.
I realize it’s an interesting dichotomy and I’m putting a lot of energy in appearances, but an illness isn’t always visible. Over the last couple of years living with cancer, I’ve discovered that my greatest blessing and most discouraging curse is that I haven’t lost my hair.
Photo courtesy of the author.