Sunday, November 9, 2008


Hair. I have always had a lot of it - thick, curly hair that I mistakenly brushed out as a kid but it was the 80s, so thankfully, I blended in. My eastern European genes also meant a unibrow that made me look like a cross between the Super Mario Brothers, and Burt from Sesame Street, so around age 12 I started waxing 'em. If you've met me only in the past thirteen years, I assure you what's currently sitting above my eyes is 1/10th of what once resided there. As I got older and headed off to college, I learned new and exciting secrets of hair maintenance from my similarly blessed sisters, and waxing, plucking, straightening, gelling, and mousing have been part of the routine ever since.

Since hair tends to get a lot of my time and attention, I appreciated the irony of how difficult it was, at the age of 23 to cope with the temporary alopecia that accompanies many types of chemotherapy, including my ABVD regiment. My sister got me a whole bunch of fabulous hats, scarves and head shmates, and as my hair thinned, I wore them, got used to them, and even tried to appreciate the additional accessory. And significantly, my hair didn't completely fall out, which actually allowed me the ability to look almost like I was just accessorizing. Maybe I'm fooling myself, but there were a lot of days in those 8 or so months, where I really enjoyed feeling like I was passing for someone normal and healthy. Though usually I just ended up getting mistaken for a married Orthodox woman - resulting in some priceless awkward moments, including one with a certain ambassador from a small, democratic, Jewish state in the Middle East.

But in private moments, before the hat went on, as I looked at myself in the mirror, as I showered, as I combed my hair, the loss of that identifying marker, that hair which I had done battle with and had learned to love, was incredibly difficult. And moments that a person with a full head of hair could experience - sleep-overs with guests, sharing hotel rooms with co-workers as I traveled for my job, respectfully removing head-wear during the national anthem, hanging out with roommates just before bed, or just a swift gust of wind - became another completely new and difficult-to-manage circumstance.

The head nurse at the GW Cancer Clinic, Kathy, told me just before my first round of chemotherapy that she thought women looked beautiful bald. Regardless of whether I agreed, I found myself thinking often about that statement as a source of inspiration and comfort. And I told myself over and over that it would grow back, and indeed, it did.

I began chemo 16 days ago, and, as I was told it would, my hair began falling out on day 14. The past 72 hours have been a repeat of what I experienced the first time around, only highly accelerated - my hair hasn't thinned slowly over the course of weeks and months this time. At first it was clumps in the shower,  and the minor trauma of watching dozens of hairs at a time swirl toward the drain. Then, throughout yesterday and today, absent-mindedly twirling a curl around my finger meant pulling out that curl, still fully intact. Each time this happened, I was caught totally off-guard and felt a panicky shock. And the past two nights, I have woken up nearly every hour, to feel my pillow to see if it had all fallen out, as is very common in chemotherapy patients. 

Around 1 am tonight, (this morning?) I just couldn't take the hair falling out all over my apartment and out in public, and I felt that I couldn't cope with another night of interrupted sleep. The inevitability of my total hair loss, in just a couple more days regardless of how much I washed it or touched it became clear. So I stood in front of my bathroom mirror, and gently ran my fingers through it, feeling the curls simply give way in my hands, like when you very gently touch the petals of a flower that's dying and they drop off so easily. It was such an odd, surreal sensation. I ran my hands through my hair over and over again, piling hair in the sink, until I looked down at it and found myself staring at the back of my own head. It will grow back, I said aloud, it will grow back, it will grow back, it will grow back. 

It's an astonishing thing to look into the mirror at a reflection of yourself that you haven't ever seen and never imagined you would - I guess the feeling is akin to dying your hair a radically different color or getting a piercing or maybe the first time you see your body after giving birth. Even if you knew a drastic change was coming, maybe even elected to do to yourself, the transformation still surprises you. And I tried to look into the mirror and see what Kathy sees when she looks at a bald head - something different, but beautiful. I wish I could, and maybe when the shock wears off, I can work toward that goal. But right now, all I can do is try to stop crying and try to get some of the sleep I was seeking by taking things into my own hands in the first place.


Joy said...

Oh, Elissa, I wish there was something I could say to make this hurt less. I guess telling you that you're an incredibly evocative writer doesn't help, does it? When you get a chance, can you send me your address in Chicago? I want to add to the hat collection... I saw one that's perfect for you!!!

Debbie said...

I can't decide if I want to say something funny -- like, "I heard bald is the new blond", or if I want to say something comforting -- like, "I'm here for you and thinking of you." And instead, I just want to wrap my arms around you and tell you everything will be okay. It will grow back. You will grow back. And your spirit will carry you through this. And if it ever feels like it won't, believe me, your friends will carry you through it. Stay strong, sister, and know that you will prevail.

Love, Debbie

Cheryl said...

Dear Elissa... It's been a while, but I'm glad to have you back in my life :) Keep writing. You are an inspiration...

Jamie: said...

Lissy, you are a beautiful writer! And let me just add that not only do women look beautiful bald, but maybe you can get out that inner punk-rocker that we all know is in there somewhere. If you haven't seen Samantha's episode with breast cancer in sex and the city, I highly recommend it. It's pretty awesome. hugsXXX

Dena said...

You are the most beautiful person on the inside and out!!! I'm thinking of you always.

Jessica Braunfeld Turnof said...

Dearest Elissa - As crazy as this will sound, try to see the hair loss as cup half full; it means you no longer need to worry about whether or when it will happen; you no longer need to concern yourself with the stress of "what if," and, most importantly, as your hair eventually begins to grow back, it will be a sign of healing and a return to full health. I know I cannot relate to what it feels like to lose hair, but I hope you can find comfort in knowing that this means that, in true cup half full style, things will get better from here.

With love and wishes for continued strength,