August 1, 2014
It started on a Sunday. I’d lathered, rinsed, and was about to repeat when I noticed about two dozen strands of hair in my hand. Well, I thought, this is it. This is the beginning of the hair loss I’ve been expecting. In fact I’d been hoping for it. So far I’ve been lucky. I haven’t had most of the side-effects associated with chemo. I haven’t had loss of appetite, mouth sores, diarrhea, constipation, spontaneous decapitation, or confusion. Although if I had confusion I dont know how I’d know. Although if I had confusion I dont know how I’d know. I did have a single bout of nausea, at around one a.m. the Friday of my first full week of chemo. Normally I dont believe in signs and omens, but the Thursday afternoon before I’d been in an office supply store where I wrote FUCK CANCER on a pad with a display pen. In my weirdly neurotic way I connected these two events. I took it to mean that I shouldn’t wallow in negativity. I’m fighting the cancer, but I also have to accept that its part of me. It’s the result of a biological miscommunication in my cells, and not the spawn of something external that can simply be expelled.
I thought the hair loss I’d experienced Sunday would be typical–that it would be a slow, gradual process that would take a while to be visible, and would, in three weeks or a month, leave me looking like a scrofulous Victorian street urchin. On Monday I was surprised to find whole handfuls of hair coming out. Each day that followed was an adventure. I began to look forward to taking a shower more than I ever had before. How much can I clog up the drain today? And I was shedding. I had to wear bandanas to bed to keep from leaving hairs all over my pillow and the rest of the bed. I had enough trouble with leaving hair everywhere else. I haven’t quite mastered the art of tying a bandana so it fits snugly to my head yet, though. If I tie it myself I look like Vermeer’s Girl With The Pearl Earring, minus the earring. It’s surprising that I have so much trouble tying a bandana. I was pretty good at knots as a Boy Scout, and give me a bottle of good Scotch and I have no problem tying one on.
The reason I looked forward to the hair loss is it’s the most obvious sign of cancer. I realize its not really the result of the cancer itself–if I’d never started treatment I’d still have a full, lush head of thin hair–but rather the chemo’s effect on fast-growing cells. And chemo is very nonjudgmental in what it attacks. Hair follicles are just one type of cell that may or may not be collateral damage. I’d heard stories of people who didn’t lose their hair, and my wife told me about one man who lost hair only from his neck down. I was hoping for baldness because, well, in my weirdly neurotic way I worried, unnecessarily, if others with worse forms of cancer looked down on me. I’m not complaining about the lack of side effects, and I’m happy about my incredibly positive prognosis. Before I was diagnosed I’d never heard anyone talk about being cured of cancer, but “cured” is exactly the word several of my doctors have used to describe the probable outcome of my treatment. But it all led me to wonder if there are other cancer sufferers who look down on me and my upbeat outlook. So far I haven’t encountered any kind of one-upmanship–nobody’s ever said “My cancer’s better than yours because it’s worse” or anything even close to that. All I’ve gotten from anyone–particularly others with cancer, regardless of the type–is sympathy and support. Still it seems like every group of people, no matter what brings them together, has a few jerks. Maybe they keep to themselves. Somewhere out there might be a support group of grizzled guys who gather around a campfire and mutter. “Doc says I got six months to live.” “Shut up, Bill. You know my doc said I got three days to live, and that was two and a half days ago.” Yeah. I kind of wanna hang with those guys.
As abruptly as it started the hair loss slowed to a crawl. It happened the following Sunday. Saturday hair was coming out in fistfuls. I could see my scalp, and was surprised to find that it had never gotten tanned, so there’s a pale patch above where my hairline used to be extending all the way back to my neck. On Sunday morning, though, I only lost a dozen hairs or so. This was in part because I didn’t have that much hair to lose, but I’ve still got some left. I’d been saying I looked like Gollum, but the truth is that I’ve got lingering sideburns, so I feel more like Gerald Ford with mange. It’s a little depressing looking at the last hairs clinging to my head. Sometimes in the shower I can hear them. “Auntie Em, Auntie Em, theres no place like home!” I want to encourage them to join the others, pulled from the drain trap and tossed to the trash. Some people, when chemo starts to take their hair, will shave their heads as a way of exercising control. My way of taking control is to let nature, or at least medicine, take its natural course. I want to watch it happen, to document it. And I am still losing hair. There’s just not that much more left. I’ve been assured that the rest of my hair will go, and probably soon as I start another cycle of chemotherapy. Although if I had confusion I don’t know how I’d know.