One year ago, almost to the day, I asked my hairdresser to cut off 16 inches of my hair. It was a pre-emptive strike. A few days later I would be admitted to the oncology unit at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan to undergo chemotherapy to treat leukemia. Everyone knows that chemo takes your hair. I wanted to take control of what I could before the poison did its damage. But I left the hair salon in tears, my braids in a plastic bag.
When I was given a cancer diagnosis at the age of 22, sitting in a doctor’s office less than a mile from my childhood home, I remember watching my dad burying his face in his hands. My mom rubbed my back with her open palm. The room fell silent for 30 seconds, or maybe it was three minutes. Then I managed to blurt out two questions: Was I going to make it through this? My doctor told me that my leukemia was “high risk.” I would need to begin treatment immediately. The second thing I asked was whether I was going to lose my hair.
As I tried to prepare for my first round of chemo, I scoured the Internet, read the pamphlets my doctor had given me and paged through the cancer books that friends and relatives had dropped off at the house. I was still catching up on the basic details of my disease, its treatment and its prognosis. I had no idea how to prepare for the havoc it would wreak on my appearance — the part of the cancer experience that the world can see.