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When a Cancer Patient Confronted Me About My Hair Extensions

The stress from caretaking had taken its toll. My hair, once long and healthy, had thinned and fallen out. At first in the shower where strands would cling together near the drain and again on my brush when any effort to make it look fuller only resulted in clumps left in the bristles.

A visit to my stylist began the conversation of extensions.

An opportunity to give my hair rest and time to return to health and fullness was just what it needed. She would take care of me, she said. After all, this was the friend in whose arms I cried when I lost my dad. It was she who took care of me when I needed to ready for his wake, it was in this chair she would slow down time for me and make it so I looked presentable for our final goodbye.

The next time in her chair would find me sitting and chatting as usual while she placed the strands strategically and expertly – you shouldn’t be able to see them, she explained. Nice extensions, she offered, was not a compliment. And so it began.

Every six weeks I would return to have them removed and re-taped; my own hair getting longer and healthier in its down time from the products I had piled on and the constant curling and blow drying to make it look … well… normal. There was nothing normal, however, about the last two years of my life. I had been powerless but to watch as the cancers ravaged the bodies of both my parents and then to be present as, passed away only weeks apart.

A full year had passed when my stylist had carefully laid out the extensions. We smiled over the length I had come in this time. My own hair was growing in healthy and strong; it wouldn’t be long until I no longer needed the extensions.

A woman, her head wrapped in a scarf, caught my eye in the mirror; she stood and made her way into our conversation. She was angry – extensions were made for people like her, she explained. Those who had lost their hair due to chemo, those who needed the hair to look normal. The women who donated their locks, she went on, did so out of generosity and love for people like her – not for people like me, who were stuck on their vanity and selfish. That hair – she pointed out – was meant for a wig so people like her could, for the briefest moment, glance in a mirror and see a time before cancer. A time where they felt beautiful and strong. Shame on me for stealing it from her.

It all spilled out then, her grief and her pain – the desperation to fit in – to belong to a society that put so much emphasis on physical beauty, the desire to be well and to be known as healthy. She was crying when she finished speaking, and my heart ached for her and her struggle. Her nemesis was breast cancer, and she was sorry – not sorry – for telling it like it was. Maybe I would think twice next time, she spat out.

In that moment, I was back at my parents’ house, standing behind my mom as she primped in front of the bathroom mirror. Her hair but wisps, thinning and falling out from the chemo. How she would try to disguise the progression of the cancer by styling it differently until even that was no longer an option. How she would sigh at her bedroom mirror at the bald spots and patches that threatened to multiply. How she wanted so desperately to hold onto that last bit of normalcy she felt with her hair.

I heard myself say, “Thank you for sharing your story” to the woman in the scarf. You’re right, I said. There were women who grew their hair long only to donate it out of kindness and generosity to those touched by cancer. But, I too had been touched. I told her then how I had to stand by and watch as cancer ripped apart my family, how brave my parents were and how in the end they would pass weeks apart. Just because I looked “normal” didn’t mean I felt it. I had been devastated by their loss and had been on my own path to wellness.

We held hands and cried together then, she apologizing – so overwhelmed by the tests and the treatments and now the waiting – that she just wasn’t herself. In that moment I was grateful for the opportunity to provide forgiveness and offer my prayers to this courageous woman who was battling such a formidable opponent. Hopefully, it made a difference.

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Thinkstock photo by Vstock LLC