Guest blogger, Erica Parks is a stay at home mother of two wonderful children, an artist, a lifetime Girl Scout, and an avid fan of anything chocolate. Erica can also count herself among those that call themselves Cancer Survivors. She endured three rounds of cancer (and is facing a fourth), a handful of surgeries, and a battering of tests to combat the disease, each time hoping it’ll be the last time. Somewhere along the journey she decided she’d start a blog not just to tell her story, but to also help others who might be facing the same thing. She is in no way a medical professional, even though she has extensive knowledge. She is merely a very experienced patient.
If you take any sixteen year old girl, stand her in front of a mirror, and ask her what her greatest feature is, it shouldn’t surprise you that she’ll come up with something physical. Never mind that most of the time, they’ll also nitpick and poke at all the features they have problems with, but usually there is at least one that they like. Few will point out their will to live or their good music tastes or their compassionate understanding for fellow man. Just setting them up in front of that mirror indicates you want them to pick out something they see, and at sixteen very few will go beyond the surface. For me that feature would have been my eyes, big, blue, expressive, and probably the only part of my face that I could stand looking at when I was sixteen. In high school a lot of girls tend to focus on their physical appearance, and for a lot of us that doesn’t really change when we leave. Our tastes change, we mature, but there’s still a sort of emotional pride that we carry when we go out knowing that we look and feel good about ourselves.
So it should come as no surprise to us when something changes our physical norm that we take it as an emotional hit. At the age of sixteen I went from a healthy teen whose mind was full of high school fluff and drama to a teen that was facing a diagnosis of cancer. Cancer was something completely foreign to me at the time, and since I had experienced no symptoms of the disease I found myself feeling more anxiety about the treatment instead. Everybody knew (in my sixteen-year-old mind) that cancer meant chemotherapy and that chemotherapy meant hair loss. Strangely enough, because I felt fine, I never really thought that the cancer would kill me. This was likely brought on partially by the fact that I was a teenager and, naturally, quite invincible.
As chemotherapy came crashing through my life I clung to the few things that helped me feel normal. My hair was one of those. I cut it short and dyed it brown (my mother had never let me dye my hair before this, so I leaped on the possibility of playing with it a little), and then proceeded to watch it gradually thin over the next few weeks. I wore bandannas to cover the patches in the back, pushed all of it forward so that it looked like I had an ample supply of hair jutting out the front, and did my best to pretend that what I saw in the mirror happening every day wasn’t happening at all. It took a girl I barely knew nearly tackling me in the auditorium and exclaiming, “Omigosh! Your hair! you look like you’re going through chemotherapy!” to make me realize that I wasn’t fooling anybody but myself. A short week later I knelt over the trash can with two close friends buzzing away the last remaining strands of my hair.
It became apparent to me that bandannas wouldn’t hide what I was going through, and in a sea of over two thousand high school students I didn’t want to be the one that stood out as the sick one. I didn’t want the pitying glances, the constant queries pertaining to my health, or the cries of, “You poor thing!”. I wanted, quite simply, to disappear. But I couldn’t. Each morning I stared at myself in the mirror, my shiny head reminding me that normalcy wasn’t something I would ever achieve. Again, I tried to hide in wigs, but the things were so hot that half the time I’d only make it through part of the day before I’d find a place to hide and fan off. Wigs gave me temporary solace, though I’d find humor in how many more compliments I’d get about my new hair style than I ever had when I actually had hair. Still, I’d find myself at home crying to my mother when the next dance came around how nobody would ever want to ask a bald girl out. Unlike most of the sweet songs and stories where some kind boy sweeps in and escorts the sick girl to the dance, my life proved opposite and the entirety of my junior year was spent avoiding dances simply because I didn’t want to put up with the humiliation I imagined would happen the moment I stepped out onto the dance floor.
Over time I began to find places where I could remove my wig. With friends during lunch in the auditorium was one place. Often times my hair would try to grow back between chemotherapy sessions and then it would fall out all over again after the next, leaving me with a patchy baby fuzz that my friends would fondly run their hands through. I gained the affectionate nickname of “fuzzy” from my drama teacher and in the choir room surrounded by an all-girl choir, I received the kind of support I never dreamed I would get. After awhile I even began to open up to those questions about my health and realized, quite simply, that people just wanted to know so they could understand…and I couldn’t find anything wrong with that. With their support I ditched the wig not long after my hair started to grow back, sporting something not too different from G.I Jane.
Now, at thirty, losing my hair doesn’t quite have the emotional toll on me that it once did. At twenty-one my cancer came back, forcing me to face the same emotions all over again. The radiation therapy I went through at twenty-one brought back another hit of cancer at twenty seven, and now once more at thirty. Each time my hair has played a pretty significant part of how I decided I’m going to deal with the onset of this disease. Unlike when I was sixteen, I refuse to hide behind it anymore. While I still might bemoan the loss of my hair, that ultimate feeling of losing a part of my femininity, I decided to be in charge of how it goes. A head-shaving party at twenty-one gave my friends a chance to be part of it, bringing hats and scarves that I was able to playfully model after the hair was lost. A private sit down in the bathroom with my husband and my son when I was twenty-seven, often replacing my loss of hair and breast with a beautiful scarf and some ridiculous dangling earrings to make me feel a little more feminine.
This time my children are old enough to watch me and learn from how I deal with things. I let them play with my short hair and try on the scarves that will eventually be covering a rather bald head. I want them to know that if, God forbid, they ever have to dance this sort of thing in their own lives that there’s always hope. I want my daughter, when she looks in that mirror at sixteen, to know that her hair isn’t what defines her as a woman, even though it sometimes feels that way. Scarves may be tugged over my head but that doesn’t mean I’m hiding this time. I know people aren’t fooled (the lack of eyebrows, lashes and hair are really a dead giveaway). While scarves replace the protection my hair gave me once, emotionally and physically, they are really only a small part of the entire painting, not the defining feature….and I’m remarkably OK with that.