Monday, September 29, 2008

I shaved my head about ten years ago…

In fact, it was exactly ten years ago, September 1998. I wanted to do it while I was still young enough and had an irresponsible-enough job, that I could get away with it. I went on a long Saturday bike ride, all over Seattle, and ended up at the condo of friends. They gave me a beer. We got talking, and I asked them to shave my head. They gave me another beer, and did it.

Bad idea. I looked like Hitler Youth, until it started growing back, then I looked like a wet rat, for months. I vowed I’d never do it again.

Some things change. Some vows, you don’t keep. I’ve been losing hair, in dribs and drabs, to interferon. My doctors told me I wouldn’t, and I didn’t, all through the infusions in June and July. I didn’t start shedding until I started the shots.

My doctors aren’t surprised that it’s happening, now. (Same dermatologist; new oncologist.) It’s listed as one of the “possible” side effects. Not one that everyone invariably gets, like exhaustion or the flu. As I understand it, I could continue shedding. It could speed up, or slow down. Or, it could stop at any time.

I still look almost normal. I think you have to know, to see. But I got my first, “Yeah, I can tell,” yesterday, when I was talking with a friend over breakfast before church. That, plus the general grossness I feel when I run my fingers over my itchy scalp and come out with pinches of hair, means it’s time to deal with this.

I’m not losing fistfuls or clumps, at any stretch. (I don’t want my mom to be horrified.) My hair is nowhere close to half out of my head. I’m more annoyed and bothered by the constancy of dead hair in my fingers (and in little clumps on my books on the floor), than anything. That’s what first prompted me to ask my cancer-survivor friends, what they did.

I got some good feedback, including this great line: “My dog shed, and I loved him.” Most of it boiled down to, you can do hats, or scarves, or whatever—or just ignore your head. You’ll know what’s right for you.

The stress of realizing I had to think about this, now, after surviving the illness itself, was hard for me. Once I’d made a decision, it’s easy. I already can’t stand the feel of my head anymore. I’m going to cut my hair significantly shorter, this week when I have energy and time. (I thought about going today, but took a needed nap.) I’ll shave it later, if I need to. But I don’t have to go from slightly-noticeable to bald, overnight.

At the same time, it’s okay to look like a chemotherapy patient. I am one. And I know that I’ve already survived the scariest thing that’s ever happened to me. This treatment wipes me right the hell out, but it does not threaten my life. I will get through it. And I will be healthy again, next summer.

It’s interesting that I’m still hung up on the idea of looking like a cancer patient. I don’t want to evoke pity that I don’t need. At the same time, I have limits I didn’t used to. It’s not a bad thing, for my looks to remind people that they can’t expect the same behavior out of me. And while I go to school with middle-class about-to-be-ministers, I spend my heart’s time on the margins. I have an “in,” so to speak. I’ve never been homeless, or suffered a mental illness worse than depression. I always had the support I needed. But my body’s in a margin of its own. The word “cancer” still strikes chills in anybody’s spine. My obvious battle with it—and my survival—can show that this is not invariably a death sentence.

I don’t cringe anymore when I see pale, puffy people in headscarves. I think, “You’re brave. You’re surviving. I salute you.”

So. My fear of looking pitiable is really all my own. I’ve never felt such strength, as when I was fighting for my life. And I’ve never seen it, save in the eyes of other survivors.

At the same time, physical illness or injury is understood. We don’t give the same grace to emotional challenges. I didn’t give myself that grace, when I was struggling with things that would have eased if I’d only had the courage then to talk about them. If I can be, both wounded and survivor, right there in class with my future-minister friends, I might be able to help them see that pain is okay. You get through it. And what’s helped me, and healed me, more than anything else is love.

I needed to learn this, too. I have so much less fear now—and also less acceptance for the fears I do have. I know that I am a survivor. And I am human. And I know that the only way to help anyone through fear—my own self included—is to sit right there with it. You can’t yell at it to make it go away. All you can do is accept the whole person. Much harder, when it’s you.

One of the deepest gifts in all of this, is just coming to me now. I made an announcement in church yesterday, saying that I wasn’t as able to be in community as I had been, and not to take it personally if I act withdrawn. Still, please keep praying. I went back to my seat afterward. The friend next to me held me. Another reached across her, to hold my hand. We didn't talk. It was simple love, and quiet strength. I sat there, with my head on her shoulder, being held by both of them, and just let the experience soak through my skin. I knew what I was receiving. And I knew that it was easier to receive, with my head out of the way.

I can’t think as quickly, or as complexly. But my heart is even more present, because my head cannot be. It’s so much easier now, to let people love me. And that, if you knew me before… wow. I needed this. And I have it.

I really do see it as, all this and survival too. I came so close. If I didn’t have health insurance, if I hadn’t had my skin checked (and checked again, when the worry nagged me), if the tumor had fired into me as it could have at any time. I live. I may have trouble getting health insurance again, forever. I do honestly fear that. But I live. I have this life, and this work, and these friends, and this purpose.

Love me. Don’t pity me. Nothing makes you love your life, like knowing how blessed you are to have it.


Joan Calvin said...

I gathered a group of my women friends and let them shave my head. I was bald for about two months. No scarfs for me. For me, they scream pity, pity, pity. I thought my bald head screamed F You Cancer. (I was in denial even in chemo). I spent a long time thinking about hair and its meaning for women. I have no words of wisdom.

I worry about people without health insurance. I am lucky. I have health insurance. I have a job/call with flexibility. I worry about women who don't have the persistence to know that when the doctor says nothing is wrong, something is and to keep hounding the doctors.

You are in my prayers.

Joan Calvin said...

Oh, I'm still mouse-headed (it's short, soft and mousy gray). African American women have begun to tell me they like my hair cut. And they tell me how I can wear earrings to enhance my look and how feminine I am.

it's margaret said...

That last yeah....

Two Auntees said...

Ahhhhhh. Friends who can sit and hold our hands without speaking. They are the best.

Prayers continue.

Kirstin said...

(((((all of you)))))

Thank you, so much.

susankay said...

Kirstin -- and know that all the old women like me who are losing hair to old age and are learning to love pinkness of the scalp are with you too.

Be well.

Caminante said...

Oops, I responded to this over on your wall (this facebook stuff is too new yet).

Apostle In Exile said...


Apostle In Exile said...

P.S. Shedding is good. For once, it lets you get even with the cats.

Paul said...

Love, not pity. Absolutely. Though I am sorry you are going through this, it's the love you get.

(((((((((((( Kirstin ))))))))))))