Looking at your face up close in a mirror, like when you’re putting on makeup, you see the small ravages of chemo: the darker skin over your lips that looks a little like a moustache from a distance; the much deeper circles etched under your eyes that cause you to use a concealer stick for the first time in decades; the strange complexion you have that’s like an unhealthy tan but is really hyper-pigmentation caused by the chemo (which has made appearances all over your body too) ; your missing lashes and eyebrows, thinned to match your bald head that is now growing a fluffy, bristly down that’s as white as your mother’s was. The eyes that look back are knowing, and that brings you closer to yourself, and perhaps, to the knowledge that you’re stronger than you thought.
2. With everything that has been stripped away, you have never been more YOU. Accept yourself.
3. When you wear your beautiful, real-hair, expensive and stylish wig, no one can tell you have cancer. But oddly enough, you very often choose to leave the wig behind—which still feels like a disguise—and head out with one of the cool caps or beanies you thought to buy before chemo even started; before you lost a single hair on your head. The other day, at a local tea shop, the assistant greeted you saying: “Oh! I love your new haircut! It’s lovely!” and before you even took a nanosecond to think, you replied: “Oh, thank you! It’s a wig! I’m in chemo!”. You were surprised and a little dismayed to see her turn beet red from discomfort. That wasn’t your intention: it just came out that way !
You find that many things that once frightened you no longer do.
4. Your life is on a brand-new track. Your days have emptied out to make room for chemotherapy treatments and medical appointments, and tests, and rest, and recovery. In exchange for the loss of your ability to work and of such a big portion of your energy, you’ve been given lots of static time—the kind that allows for calmness, quiet, peacefulness, meditation, writing, reading, watching, thinking, listening, and just being. You’re more often alone during the day because you’re home, and you find that this solitude is mostly replenishing. You have never felt so little stress, so at peace. You can’t quite understand how this is so. You know it won’t (and shouldn’t) last. It isn’t life, but it’s your life right now.
5. Being open about your cancer and treatments, especially the way you have, with a series of blog posts, has not made you a pariah. Instead, it has opened channels with people you’ve never met and some you barely knew. It has deepened many friendships. It has given you AND others a different means of understanding cancer and its treatment, and of banishing judgement, isolation and misunderstanding. At least, that seems to be what you want and what others want too. You huddle with them, and it warms all of you.
6. During those low post-chemo days when you sleep, shiver, and drag yourself about, and know that your body is drained and struggling, it’s okay to submit to its needs. Your body is brave and tough and wants to get you to the end of this trial. It’s doing everything it can. Love it back.
Last week, one of the oncology psychologists on staff at the CHUM called me, wondering if I’d be interested in meeting her to talk about my experiences so far. While I thought of saying: No, no, that’s not necessary, I’m doing pretty well, blah-blah-blah, another part of me remembered the sadness I’d recently struggled with. How quick my reflex was to dismiss her invitation because I didn’t want to go back to the CHUM on my off-week (that is, my chemo-free week), and perhaps because dismissing her was also a way of making some of my medicalized life just go away…
And then I also remembered that I had booked an appointment for Friday at 2pm with Les Jumelles, identical twins who have been in business 35 years, helping people (mostly women) suffering with hair loss, and whose salon is just a 15-minute metro ride from the CHUM. And so, I said yes to the psychologist, Véronique, and booked us for noon.
Véronique is actually at the end of her training, and her PhD supervisor, also a woman, sat discretely against the wall, tucked away in a corner, and simply listened and took notes for the entire 80 minutes (we should have gone to 90 but Les Jumelles were also expecting me).
It was a strange experience at first. I’ve consulted before, for other reasons, and am convinced of the immense value of the therapeutic process, but to be sitting in a sterile room on a stiff chair facing two psychologists, at a time when I feel as though I’m falling from a great height, with no sense of where the bottom is…Well, where do you start?
Everything about what’s happening to me is contextual. My separation from my husband; my new, multigenerational home; my diagnosis and treatment. These are all so intertwined. There have been so many simultaneous changes. Attempting to convey any of this in 80 minutes…
In the end, what I wanted to express to Véronique (or else why bother consulting her?) was my distress, which is always here, inside me, woven between my hope, my daily life which is so full of meaning and so suffused with love, and woven also into my fears about the possible destruction of my life and of me, and the suffering that attaches itself to this, which I cannot help but observe, distraught, as it seeps into the lives of my loved ones. I want to get through this experience of cancer and chemo, get right through to whatever outcome awaits me, but I want to get there without causing pain to the people I love. This is impossible because it isn’t how love works. This was what I left Véronique with last Friday. She said that she’ll come and see me as often as possible while I’m in chemo, which may not sound ideal, but which is a very sensitive decision on her part, leaving me as much time away from the CHUM as possible.
Next, I had to set off to the wig shop. Just like my meeting with Véronique, heading off to the shop in a part of the city I rarely even drive through was something I had to do alone. I surprised myself by doing this. It was a secret that I had largely kept from myself: that I could arrive at this point.
From what I had read (spurred on by wishful thinking), people treated for colorectal cancer rarely lost their hair. It wasn’t one of THOSE cancers. Their hair might thin, but they usually fared quite well. And then came the chemo, and by week three, all I had to do was pass a large toothed comb through my hair to collect handfuls of it that had detached right at the follicle. There were other similar torments: washing my hair in the shower and collecting the strands of hair, like thick dark ribbons, caught between my fingers and clogging the drain. I had my hair cut much shorter, hoping to save it, but it just made it easier to spot the dozens and dozens of strands clinging to my clothes and collecting in the corners of my bedroom. And then I realized that my hair was so thin that you could see my scalp easily, because my part was widening every day…
My thick, wavy hair, that I had just grown longer after years of wearing it short, had become the drip of the loss that is a daily reality when you’re in chemo. And I couldn’t stand it anymore. Couldn’t stand the feeling of decay that it evoked in me. So, I decided that I would do what I thought I would never do: I walked into Les Jumelles, feeling alone and not very tough, and I tried on wig after wig—most of which I thought made me look appalling—until I saw one that seemed, um, human, and that I thought maybe I could wear.
A small cap was placed over my real hair, and the wig was placed over that, and there I was: straight-haired, with a long fringe that cut across my face. It was impossible for me to speak above a whisper, or to smile. Something was happening in that moment that felt unreal. Cinematic. Taking this step was for me, in important ways, a final retreat, or, looked at from the other side, a determined decision to walk toward all of what chemo means.
The women in the shop thought I might return on another day and have them shave my head and do some final adjusting. They were surprised when I said that I wanted my head shaved right away, and the wig styled and trimmed (with a shorter fringe at the front please!).
And then it was done, and I stepped out onto the sidewalk feeling like some false, floating thing was on my head, and that everyone would stop and stare (and maybe screech). No one batted an eyelash. I had already ordered beanies and caps that I would be able to wear when I wanted out from under the wig, and I wear them a lot at home. But out in the world, the wig, while still an alien thing, is also a valuable accessory because it allows me to walk around without a giant C, for chemo, stamped onto my forehead.
Today, the house is empty, and so it’s my time to write. I didn’t dress up, or put any makeup on, and I just covered my head with a dark blue beanie (no wig) and sat in from of my laptop. Within minutes, the doorbell rang, but I didn’t answer, because I didn’t want to be seen like this. The delivery man left a package by the door. It took just seconds for me to see that he had left the wrong package. Five minutes later, the doorbell rang again, and I knew I had to answer, and make the swap. And face this man.
Then, 15 minutes later at the most, the doorbell rang again (!!), and this fellow, whom I could see through the bevelled glass, seemed pretty insistent, because he rang another time, and just hung out in front of the door. Oh, man. Well, I answered the door. He was a lovely fellow coming to take measurements of the floors because we’re having work done on them. I had been expecting him at 7 pm.
Something is happening to me as I live with cancer and chemo. I’m being made to let go of more than I can count. And each time, I survive the loss. And each time, I am given something I didn’t have. Insight, clarity…I can’t say yet.