Upon learning that I was 100 percent going to lose my hair after I had chemotherapy for breast cancer, I tried a basic Google search for wigs, with dismal results. I found a lot of unfashionable websites — Comic Sans font on cream-colored backgrounds, tribal-print borders, and cartoonish clip art. I wanted Nordstrom and had somehow stumbled into Walmart circa 1997. They didn't even have photos of the wigs.
When Googling failed, I spent hours talking to my mom's friends who had gone through chemotherapy, and then reading the yelp reviews for the "chemotherapy wig" places they recommended. The markups seemed atrocious and exploitative — these wigs started at a cool $3,000. Shouldn't wigs for people going through cancer be cheaper? The stores didn't list anything beyond their prices online. Exorbitant, buy-a-car-for-this prices. Phone calls resulted in aggressive pitches to schedule paid consultations (a "deposit" toward a purchase to discourage unserious buyers).
My surgeon told me about a woman in Oregon who would cut off my natural hair and make it into a wig. But I didn't just want to re-create the limp, awkwardly wavy hair I was losing; I was going to use this as an opportunity to improve my appearance. I was going to get something better than the hair I currently wore on my head. My new wig would be amazing. Longer, thicker, straighter — this would be an opportunity to have the Liv Tyler hair I'd always dreamed of.
I was going to get something better than the hair I currently wore on my head.
I eventually connected via email with a woman who would make me a custom wig. I drove two hours to visit her in a distant suburb to get measured. Her website had a whole (lilac-colored) page dedicated to chemotherapy hair loss, even featuring before-and-after pictures. We exchanged emails that were pages long as we discussed my options for the wig, finally settling on glossy, straight, black natural hair from India, with a whisper-thin cap that would make up in breathability what it would lack in durability.
I remember agonizing over the decision of paying extra for a longer-than-standard wig, because the standard length looked insufficiently luscious on my five-foot-ten frame. I wanted something that would drape protectively over my offending breast, a magical coat of hair to protect me from a body spiraling out of my control.
My wig would end up being the single most expensive wearable thing I've ever purchased, more expensive than even my wedding dress. I would get to wear it for only two weeks.
Lying in bed on my 29th birthday, I reached across my body and felt a gigantic lump in my right breast. It was the size of a stomped-on tangerine, and it had definitely not been there three months earlier when I went in for my annual pap. I knew right away it was something.
A week later, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
My first and secret thought, sitting with my mom and my boyfriend in the doctor's office, was a paralyzing fear of losing my long hair. I flashed back, like I was in a movie. I saw my boyfriend wrapping a tendril of my long hair around his finger and saying, "I love your long hair, promise me you'll never cut it." I blamed him a little for that, as if he had somehow jinxed me.
I began treatment in September, with what my nurses called "the worst of all the chemos." In addition to rendering me violently nauseous, my hair would fall out, grow back again in between treatments, then those hairs would fall out again. I developed antibiotic-resistant staph infection in my hair follicles, caused by a perfect storm of pressure from the wig, the trauma of losing my hair over and over again, and an acute case of steroid acne. The infection left hideous red scars on my tender skin. Forget the scratchy wig; I couldn't even wear a hat. Just touching my head dislodged speckles of dead hair. I wept, curled up in a ball with my scalp covered in ice packs to alleviate the burning from the awful pustules.
My hairdresser mother came over every day, and the scene devastated her. Growing up, her profession provided me with the ultimate beauty indulgence. There wasn't a cut or color we hadn't tried, a highlighting technique, bangs, curly and straight and back again. Changing my hair was my therapy, something in the universe that I could improve or change when things weren't going the way I wanted.
Changing my hair was my therapy, something in the universe that I could improve or change when things weren't going the way I wanted.
Now that I was sick, she visited every beauty-supply store, weird Russian pharmacist, and aesthetician in San Francisco, producing foul-smelling potions for me to eat and smear on my skin.
Finally, she took my puffy face gently in her creamy, perfectly manicured hands, looked me right in the eye, and said in her lilting Hungarian accent, "Dena, you cannot choose the sheeeet that G-d is going to send your way. All you can choose is how you react to it."
It wasn't just about the hair. My hair was this thing I felt like I actually had some control over, and getting cancer had taken that away from me. The wig was my attempt to get it back, but that had failed. I would need to own that deep and terrifying lack of power. Then I would have to let it go.
The holidays are usually my favorite time of year. I looked forward to the sparkly dressing of the party-filled season the way other people look forward to college football. I planned my holiday-party outfits as far in advance as my summer birthday, requesting outfits for New Year's Eve and Christmas parties as soon as they hit the catalogs.
All that enthusiasm and anticipation had fallen by the cancer wayside. I was tired of feeling isolated and lonely. I was acutely aware of what I had missed having spent the past few months in my apartment, not working, leaving the house only to go to the doctor. It was time to bust my bald self out.
At the time, I had still been blogging and Instagramming selfies frequently. In the digital world I had absolute and total editorial control over the presentation of myself. I was carefully choosing the images I shared, posting only the pictures that captured the version of myself I wanted to be — perfectly made-up and cropped above the eyebrow to hide my bald head — even if I was supine and pajama-clad.
In the digital world I had absolute and total editorial control over the presentation of myself.
In the weeks leading up to my first holiday party, I obsessively researched and prepped my look. Five dresses were ordered, tried on, and promptly returned. Pinterest boards were filled with step-by-step makeup tutorials and stunningly composed portraits of bald celebrities. My Amber Rose obsession was at a fever pitch. I decided to pair my glowing, shiny head — all healed from the damage back in September — with a deep faux tan, big cherry-red lips, and a tight little dress. It was another splurge: a creamy white confection, covered all over with smoky black flowers. It had a boat neck, long fitted sleeves, and a sexy inverted hemline, making me look curvy and statuesque.
As I stood in the lobby of the hotel on the day of the first party, tottering in my too-high heels and waiting for my date, I noticed a cute, tall boy looking at me. I felt a familiar tingle in my ego.
I must have smiled at him, because he started walking over to me. "I love your, um, lack of hair?" he said, then reached out his hand to stroke my head. Shocked, I froze, and let him. I almost purred like a cat at the attention. After a weird amount of time with a stranger caressing my bare skin, I finally blurted out my confession. "It's not by choice, I have cancer."
I expected revulsion, for him to draw his hand away repulsed.
Instead it provoked what I refer to as "my most favorite of all the responses."
You look amazing," he said, with a lascivious grin. "You don't look like you're sick. At all."
More than three years after that moment, it still embarrasses me a little, because it was so important to be considered "hot." But losing my hair forced me to admit that having long hair was deeply embedded in my sense of my own attractiveness, and by extension femininity, and that without it, I struggled to feel confident.
My brain was on a vicious loop. How had I become so invested in such a clichéd trapping of femininity that I could let something as ephemeral as the length of my hair determine how I felt about my entire sense of self? Was I so superficial?
My brain was on a vicious loop.
I wish I could end this story with some kind of profound revelation about how after that I stopped caring about what other people think.
I still care. I still want to be liked. I still want my husband, my friends, strangers on the street, and all of my exes to think I'm attractive.
What I learned is that I have the power to accept or reject constructed ideas about appearance. I have the power to define my own femininity. And my new sexy is simply healthy.
What I learned is that I have the power to accept or reject constructed ideas about appearance.
When my hair finally started to grow back, it did so like a newborn's — tufted, patchy, and recessed high on my forehead. So I bleached the shit out of it. I rocked that blonde pixie, and every awkward growing-out step in between (you can see pictures of it here).
As it grew out, I began to experience the most hilarious irony of chemo hair loss. We only use about a third of our hair follicles at a time, and the dormant follicles are activated in the absence of their damaged cohorts; as the chemo-damaged follicles healed they also started to grow. The hormonal part of my therapy changed their shape, so now my hair is straighter. Twice as thick. Luscious AF.
Four years later and it's well past my shoulders and just freaking gorgeous. I finally have the hair of my dreams, and of course I would trade it all in a second for a body free from cancer. Every day I wake up, I slather my face with an insane series of non-carcinogenic skin-care products, play lovingly with my hair for about 30 minutes, and wish with all my heart that someone will finally find a cure for metastatic breast cancer. I would do it all again, and more, to be cancer free. Also, I looked pretty gorgeous bald.
Dena Smith is still receiving chemotherapy every three weeks for her Stage IV metastatic breast cancer, but her skin and hair have never looked better. She writes about how she got them that way on her blog, Leo With Cancer.