A woman who changes her hair is about to change her life.
— Coco Chanel
My hair started to fall out strand by strand instead of in the large, dramatic clumps that I imagined it would. It began to thin at an imperceptible rate, despite treating my doomed follicles with the utmost care. I delicately combed my hair, making sure I wasn’t yanking too hard, as if preserving a fragile object. At first, I didn’t notice the bald patch on the side of my head. Freshly dyed purple strands covered the precise location where I had two brain surgeries: a craniotomy and gamma knife radiation surgery to remove and eradicate a cancerous tumor that started in my rectum and spread to my brain. My oncologist told me my hair would fall out two to four weeks after my first chemotherapy treatment. I was hoping for the latter. When I noticed the bald patch I was blindsided, just as I was when I heard those words for the first time, the words I did not expect to hear at thirty-eight years old: “You have cancer.” I could no longer deny it. Yes, I am a cancer patient, yes I am losing my hair. Yes, I have lost control of my body. But did I ever have control to begin with?
I wasn’t prepared for the devastation of losing my hair. I was getting ready to go back to the cancer center for my second round of chemo. My mother offered to take me and was downstairs talking with my husband while I finished getting ready in the upstairs bathroom. As I fixed my hair in the mirror, I noticed how much the purple dye had faded within a few weeks. It was like the chemo was pushing back, rejecting any attempt to make me feel a little better about the situation. I gently tousled my natural curls, trying to coax them out with gel. I flipped my hair over and that’s when I saw the bald patch on the left side of my head, right where I had surgery. I knew hair loss was inevitable but I thought I might get lucky and make it to the four-week marker. My gut reaction was to let out a wail, a guttural cry that came from the pit of my stomach. My mother rushed up the stairs to see what was the matter, to comfort me. Just like that, my hair was gone.
I was made aware of the fraught relationship women have with their own hair as early as kindergarten. The entire class learned a hula dance to perform on stage at the annual spring fair that day. The boys wore Hawaiian shirts and the girls wore grass skirts. I wanted a fake flower in my hair like the rest of the girls, a wish that my mother obliged. We decided on styling my hair down, with one side pulled back behind my ear to highlight the cheap silk flower. “Ow,” I yelped when my mother pulled my hair tight, accidentally scraping my scalp with a bobby pin.
“Get used to it. We all have to suffer for beauty.”
My mother was enthusiastic about enrolling me and my brother and in a variety of extracurricular activities, so when I decided to try ballet she was eager to take me to lessons every Saturday morning for three years even though I didn’t have a graceful bone in my body. Still, the Saturday mornings spent pulling my hair into the requisite bun were worth it; at the end of each season the entire ballet school performed in the annual recital, which was an excuse to wear a fanciful costume. I learned the importance of beating our hair into submission as I was taught how to frame my arms just so and squat down into a plié. At its core, ballet is about discipline and control. Every gesture, every hair follicle, must be accounted for. My mother would shellac my tightly pulled bun with hairspray each year for the recital. My hair dared not budge.
I realized that I was only in ballet for the costumes, not some deep seated love of dance. I abandoned my weekend hobby by the third grade, thus freeing up my time for other endeavors, like flute lessons. I was never popular, but I wasn’t quite a total geek either, and by eighth grade all the cool girls decided it was hip to shave the back of their heads, just above the nape of the neck in an undercut. I desperately wanted to be cool as well, but my mother just wouldn’t have it. So I took matters into my own hands. I had just been allowed to shave my armpits, but legs were still off-limits. My mother deemed smooth legs as something too adult, too mature for an eighth grader, but armpit hair was dirty and unsightly so it had to go. I took that razor and attempted to shave the back of my head, without the assistance of a mirror. I figured that I could cover up my cool new ‘do by simply wearing my long hair down when I was home. At school, I would scrape my hair into a messy bun, which was also cool at the time, and show off my freshly shorn look. My plan worked for a few weeks, until my mother noticed my hair looked thinner in the back. Outraged by her discovery, she took me to a hairdresser to even out the mess I had created on the back of my head, which was exactly what I wanted in the first place. To this day I don’t regret this haircut. It was a stupid yet harmless decision.
When I entered my freshman year of high school, I noticed the smart, pretty girls wore large grosgrain bows perched atop their ponytails, customized with puffy paint in school colors with “I.H.S. c/o 1998” and sometimes their initials. I found the look rather juvenile. What kind of teenager wears bows like a little girl, I thought. But nonetheless, somehow I convinced myself that a perky ponytail with a crisp grosgrain bow was a key to academic and social success. I constantly looked for clues, any indicator of who my new classmates were by how they chose to accessorize their school uniforms.
In a way I wasn’t wrong— the in crowd favored preppy looks to my 1990s grunge music vibes, a music movement and its accompanying aesthetic that originated in the cool climate of the Pacific Northwest, far away from my swampy, humidity-soaked Southeastern Louisiana home. My uniform of combat boots and flannel shirts tied around with my waist stood out on our monthly dress down days, the once-a-month opportunity to wear our regular clothes to school instead of our uniforms. I couldn’t compete with the popular students so I went in the opposite direction.
Our annual tri-school mass was an affair that brought the other all-girl Catholic school and the all-boy Catholic school together under one roof and was one of the few occasions that the school administration was adamant that we stringently follow the school’s “formal” dress code: pleated plaid skirt, ironed white button down, scratchy navy polyester vest. No logoed school sweatshirts, no special club sweaters. We were drilled to be on our best behavior; we were representing our school to the highest degree. Since I had to take my Metallica and Smashing Pumpkin pins off my vest, I decided to tease the shit out of my hair a la Gilda Radner just for the occasion. I braided my hair the night before to maximize my natural wavy texture, touching it up on the bus ride over to the all-boy school’s campus. Two small barrettes, one on each side, were swallowed up by the volume. My hair garnered lots of stares from the other girl’s school, which was exactly the point. It was an under-the-radar act of rebellion—bad taste wasn’t against the rules.
Later on in my freshman year, my cousin asked me to be a bridesmaid in her wedding. It was a time when I had dreams of lush aristocracy that contrasted with my lower middle-class upbringing. I was enthralled with Anne Rice’s Interview With A Vampire and 90’s mall fashions provided access to cheap velvet, which was the closest I would get to the frilly, bourgeois aesthetic of Lestat, Rice’s famous undead protagonist. So when my cousin asked me to stand in her wedding, I was thrilled to wear an emerald green taffeta dress and have my hair professionally styled in an updo with delicate tendrils of hair framing my face. I didn’t particularly care about the wedding so much as the opportunity to get dressed up. There were scant reasons to do otherwise, my life consisting of going to marching band practice in the scorching sun or daydreaming about getting swept away by a vampire hanging out in the swamp behind our house after falling madly in love with me while listening to my rusty version of Handel’s Sonatas on flute.
On the morning of the wedding, my hair stylist sculpted my hair into submission, creating the soft, face framing waves and those tendrils of hair I so desired. A cloud of hairspray locked in my tresses like tree sap. My hair looked soft but was hard to the touch, ensuring that my stylist’s handiwork would remain intact from the opening notes of “Canon in D” to the cutting of the cake. My hair made it through the wedding and then some; my hair didn’t budge, even the next day. I threw my favorite flannel shirt and jeans on and went to Wal-Mart with my mom; my hair was all dressed up with nowhere to go.
I started waiting tables right before my twentieth birthday, which allowed me to move out of my parent’s house and get a cheap as hell apartment with two roommates. I quickly transitioned from working at a fast casual restaurant attached to the mall to fine dining, bouncing from restaurant to restaurant for five years. When you’re pouring hundred dollar bottles of wine for diners, it’s generally frowned upon to show up to work with lavender hair. That might not necessarily be the case now, but unnatural hair colors would elicit an eyebrow raise amongst moneyed diners of New Orleans fifteen years ago. My hair color experimentations were limited to shades of crimson boxed hair dye from the drugstore. My long sleeve uniform shirt covered up my tattoo, making myself as palatable to guests as the duck entree with demi-glace sauce and crab fat roasted fingerling potatoes. Once I tired of the red dye, I bleached the lower portion of my natural brown hair blonde, where my eighth grade undercut once took up real estate. In hindsight, my two-toned hair was hideous, but it made me feel cool and sent a subtle FU to the stuffy diners, or at least I thought it did.
Two days after I retired from fine dining at twenty-five years old, I pierced my nostril—professionally, of course. I was a grown up after all. I also attempted to dye my own brown hair blue because I was broke as hell after paying for the piercing. My DIY hairdo looked less my desired pool blue, more dirty dishwater. After attempting to redo it myself (girl, just stop) I caved and went to a hairdresser, who dyed my bangs blue and the rest of my hair black. Again, not a great choice but I had fun exploring this new, radically different look.
Just a few months later my husband and I were leaving New Orleans and driving back to Arizona when I read the letter my mom gave me. My husband and I had recently moved to Scottsdale after evacuating for Hurricane Katrina. I dyed my hair right before the storm and she hadn’t seen it before we evacuated. We landed in the Phoenix area in September after living in hotels and a friend’s parents’s house for a month, two wandering souls in a Honda CRV traveling through the desert. It was November, and we had a U-Haul loaded with all of our belongings that we left behind in New Orleans when we fled in the middle of the night to beat the storm. Our rental home was spared, but our neighborhood was not. With so much uncertainty back home, we decided to stay in Arizona, where we ended up living for three and a half years.
My mom isn’t good with confrontation, that’s why she wrote the letter. She gave me the letter before we left New Orleans and I waited to open the letter on the road. She told me I was a garbage human for dyeing my hair blue, or at least that’s the way she made me feel. She said I was superficial and told me I was a disappointment; she didn’t raise me to be a person who would do something so garish with their appearance. I thought I was having fun; she thought I was being immature. I hoped that by my moving across the country after Hurricane Katrina would soften her. The levees couldn’t hold back floodwaters nor my mother’s opinion of me.
I didn’t regret dyeing my hair. I was tired of being judged and didn’t want to succumb to her. I was twenty-five years old and a grown ass married woman, perfectly capable of making decisions for myself. I can’t recall if I wrote her back but I can recall that I didn’t speak to her for a long time after that. Looking back, my choice in hair color was cringe worthy. It didn’t suit me at all but it was a stupid yet harmless decision.
For most of my twenties and thirties I had long, wavy locks that cascaded down my back. I loved having long hair, having grown it out many times in my life. So much had transpired since we moved back to New Orleans seven years ago. The year I turned thirty we bought a house, then and I went back to school at the age of thirty-three. Now, two years later, I was wrapping up the undergraduate career I had started seventeen years ago and about to walk across the commencement stage and receive two diplomas for two bachelor’s degrees.
I was ready for a change, so I went to a hairdresser that I had never met before and asked her to lop my hair off, right above my shoulders. I felt free. The dead weight I was carrying around— the embarrassment of being a college drop out, the excuses I made for my prior poor academic performance: two deaths in the family, partying, indifference, fell to the floor, was swept up, and discarded. I felt lighter, ready to embrace the newfound confidence I had after all those years. I felt like a new me. I felt like myself.
I stuck with the same haircut for two years until I went back to school a second time. Two years later I decided to pursue a masters of fine arts in creative writing— something I didn’t know I was capable of until that last semester of undergrad when I cut my hair. After almost three years of being back in school, I felt like I was just getting warmed up, so going back while I still had momentum made sense.
During my first semester of grad school I hacked off even more hair. This time, I opted for an asymmetrical style— cropped on the sides, long on the top; another physical transformation to reflect inner change. I had recently lost 30 pounds by eating healthier and working out. I felt hot. Hell, I even looked hot. I was a 37-year-old woman open to exploring herself in ways I couldn’t have conceived of before. I went blonde the following semester, another first for me. It wasn’t an outlandish hairstyle, but my hair was radically different and edgier than my previous cuts. I babied my tresses, buying special purple shampoo to even out the brassiness from the bleach. I straightened my hair when I wanted a sleek, polished look and let my natural curls go feral when I wanted to. I had control. I had control over my life.
The brain surgery wasn’t as terrifying as I thought it would be. I went to sleep, woke up, and the tumor had been removed. Just like that I was cancer free, at least in my brain. The incision was small, a tidy row of eight metal staples keeping my scalp from peeling back. A nearly imperceptible sliver of hair was removed, which I easily concealed with head scarves and by flopping my asymmetrical haircut over the gash in my skull.
As neat and tidy as eradicating the brain cancer was, colorectal cancer treatment was a drawn out, torturous affair. Every two weeks for seven months I would sit at the cancer center for nearly five hours. First for bloodwork, then a consultation with my oncologist, then the chemo treatment, which consisted of an I.V. drip administered with a cocktail of steroids and anti-nausea medicine. I was then sent home with another type of chemo, the appropriately named 5FU, attached to a pump hooked up to a needle in my chest that dripped for 46 hours. The chemo kept my cancer under control, shrinking my rectal tumor before my eventual surgery to remove it entirely.
Not all types of chemo cause hair loss, which gave me an initial false sense of hope. My dad, who died of colon cancer when I was twenty-one years old, did not lose his hair. Worrying about losing my hair initially made me feel vain. It’s just hair, it will grow back. Intellectually, I knew that this was true. Emotionally it was one of the hardest things to deal with.
I felt my humanity flaking away as strands covered everything— my pillow, the tub, my hats. A friend, a breast cancer survivor, offered to shave my head for me. We left it short, a gamine Audrey Hepburn look albeit with a prominent bald patch. It didn’t last for long. The short, spiky strands felt like daggers in my eyes when I rolled over them on my pillow, which looked like a barber shop floor every morning. At that point, getting rid of the rest of the offending hair was less traumatic; it gave me a sense of control over a small part of my struggle; it gave me a sense of humanity. I borrowed my brother’s clippers and attacked the remaining offenders like I was using a weed whacker. My husband offered to shave the back for me when he noticed how uneven my handiwork was, evening out the errant strands I missed at the nape of my neck. The last time I shaved the back of my head was in eighth grade in order to look cool and fit in. Now I was going to stand out.
I wore a scarf to cover my bald head, partially to protect my now sensitive scalp from the sun then and the cold when temperatures dropped a few months later, but I also didn’t want to look like a cancer patient. I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me. I didn’t want to be stared at. I just wanted to feel like me. So I covered my head until I worked up the courage to just walk around bald. That, in itself, provided a sense of liberation. I learned how to be proud of my bald head. I was proud to be carrying a full course load and a part-time job while undergoing the most traumatic, devastating experience in my life. I’m not the type to wear an awareness ribbon or a “Fuck cancer” t-shirt. My bald head was my FU to my diagnosis.
I shaved my head again that October. I was halfway through chemo, so it felt counter intuitive but my hair was growing back unevenly, like a patchy lawn: a pop of grass here, barren soil there. I wanted my hair to grow back evenly so I shaved the early growers to allow the rest of my hair to catch up. By January I had full coverage—I looked less cancer patient, more Sinéad O’Connor. To an undiscerning eyes, it appeared that my haircut might be intentional.
I tried not to concern myself too much with other people’s opinions. On campus I sometimes noticed students start to stare, then quickly divert their gaze once we locked eyes. Were people really staring at me or was I being hypersensitive? There was no way to tell, unless a person tried to initiate conversation. I was grabbing a coffee before class in the library coffee shop when a student worker engaged me in conversation as she was ringing me up.
“I like your shaved head,” she said. I offered up a quick yet polite thank you and placed my order.
“I want to shave my head.”
Oh lord, here we go.
“Something something something, blah blah blah.”
She just won’t quit, will she?
“I wish I had alopecia so I could be bald.”
I was still getting used to handling situations like this.Who wishes for an affliction like alopecia, one which strips its sufferer of all their hair? It’s one thing to make a choice about your hair, it’s another to have baldness imposed upon you.
“I have cancer,” I blurted. My tone remained as polite as I could muster but I was raging inside. It was an awkward way to end an awkward conversation, but she finally shut up long enough for me to scurry back to my table with my coffee in peace. The newness of my situation was still fresh, but these interactions were already exhausting. The barista seemed unaffected by my response. I hoped that we would both learn something from our brief encounter.
That December, I took up rollerskating for fun and exercise. I skated off and on since I was a kid and it brought some much needed joy in my life. Thursday nights are adult skate night at the local roller rink. There was a 20-something woman there one night with a freshly shaved buzzcut and clear, acrylic eyeglasses, similar to mine. We made eye contact a few times, two women with a similar aesthetic. I wondered if her haircut was for fashion or from cancer. I wondered if she wondered the same about me.
Once I grew accustomed to baldness I realized there are a few perks that come with it. Chemo attacks rapidly growing cells, which takes out body hair as well. As excited as I was to start shaving my legs as a teen, I was ecstatic not to have to do it now as an adult. Having little to no hair on my head freed up my morning routine — no more blow drying and styling. I never have hat hair. Before the pandemic, I could wear the stickiest lip gloss and not have wisps of hair adhere to my shiny lips. Lipstick, the little indulgence that makes me feel the most feminine, is now unnecessary with the widespread use of face masks. My hair slowly grew back in while I underwent chemo. My look morphed from Britney Spears break down circa 2007 to Mia Farrow circa 1996.
That February, after my last round of chemo and a year before anyone knew what Covid-19 was, I had to wear a face mask for three weeks. Chemo eradicated the cancer and took all of my white blood cells with it. It was the first time I had to mask up during my entire treatment and I was so sick of looking sick. Nothing said cancer patient more than short hair and a face mask. I decided to get a haircut, which was completely unnecessary but it helped me gain a small sense of control over my appearance.
I went to a barber, something I had never done before. Nothing in my life felt like a guarantee; my hair ceased being this precious thing and yet I deliberated on even having a razor thin portion of it removed. It felt counterproductive to cut it when I was trying to let it grow but I want to shape it, give my hair some style. I desperately needed to feel like I was not just a bystander in my own body.
Besides my barber, I was the only woman in the shop. I sat in her chair, the low buzz of clippers and mumbled conversations contributing to a zen-like vibe. I felt out of place but not unwelcome as I tried to exert my right to be in that space male dominated space. Polished dress shoes propped up on salon chair footrests indicated clients on their lunch break.
The cut took longer than I thought it would, which surprised me since I had very little to cut. I expressed that I wanted a line on the side of my head, something fleeting yet fun. I didn’t want something outlandish, like lines on a pressed panini but I wanted something different from my norm. When the barber was finished she spun me around to look at my new cut in the mirror. I felt indifferent about it. The line — more like a horizontal candy cane— was fine, but my new look was more masculine than I wanted. I didn’t feel the need to express myself as ultra feminine, but I also wanted to feel like myself. I uploaded the picture to social media, which evoked responses ranging from “Fuck yeah” to “Cute.”
I was in Whole Foods that June, grabbing a few groceries on the way home after work. I was a barely a month out from my final surgery, feeling fresh and right with myself. I was sliding back into normalcy, rediscovering a life I had and figuring out the life that was now mine, a life post-cancer but not without worry thanks to regular CT scans and MRIs, constant bloodwork and doctors sending tiny cameras up my butt to peek inside my colon. Sickness was barely behind me as I walked past the cut flowers and fresh squeezed juices when I saw myself in another woman, an all too familiar moment. My life was a video tape and someone paused the footage and hit rewind. The woman had on a medical mask and a close crop of tight curls stretched over her scalp. Then I noticed the fanny pack kept close to her body, perhaps a chemo pump just like I had endured that past winter, the IV hooked up to a needle piercing through the skin in her chest, slowly delivering toxic chemicals through a port, which relied on her heart to disperse the chemo throughout her body. Maybe she just liked the ease of a fanny pack, a bag small enough to to stash the essentials: wallet, keys, phone, breath mints, sunglasses. I saw her in a flash but I was looking at myself from the recent past. I nearly started to ugly cry next to the organic grapes. Was she sick? Was she scared? I would never know. I held back tears, my own hair still short with unruly “chemo curls.” I pushed my cart past bags of frozen fruit and pink deli meats protected by thin plastic sleeves while trying to compose myself long enough to get to the parking lot, throw my groceries into the backseat, and unleash a year’s worth of sorrow.
My hair was just long enough to look less cotton balls attached to my scalp, more soft ringlets, when it started to fall out a second time that November, just over a year after my hair fell out the first time. The cancer had spread to my lungs this time, which was confirmed by a needle biopsy. Just like before, my hair started to fall out two weeks after my initial chemo treatment. I felt more prepared this time. I was less concerned about losing this precious thing, more worried that this recurrence could signal the start of chemo for life if the tumor didn’t respond to treatment as well as last time. This could be the last recurrence; I know the odds are against me; only fifteen percent of stage IV colorectal patients live to see the five-year mark. Still, I hope. Like those four letters— H-O-P-E— will be enough to wish this away (well that and modern medicine). I don’t know if this is the end or the beginning of the end; what if this turns out to be incurable? What if I’m on chemo for the rest of my life? What if I’m worrying too much and this is the end and I start fresh yet again when this is over?
I shaved my head shortly after Thanksgiving. The hair loss isn’t as dramatic this time and I’m not sure if it’s my perception or if I’m prepared. My hair started to fall out strand by strand, barely perceptible, like the first time I went through this. After two weeks, it came out in fistfuls, clogging the bathtub drain and leaving its mark on my collar, the back of the sofa, and the seat of my car. My hair was everywhere. I handed a clump to my husband as if I was proving to myself that this is real. Two people offered to shave it for me but I insisted that I could do it myself. I borrowed my brother’s clippers again and my husband offered to clean up the back for me, the part of myself that I couldn’t see.
Just like last time, most of my body hair fell out. My armpits remained smooth and my pubic hair was sparse. I tried to find the silver lining to make light of the situation and make it more bearable. I haven’t had to buy shampoo in well over a year and I canceled my razor subscription service. Who knows when, if ever, I’ll need razors again.
Prior to having cancer, I only wore wigs for costume parties and Mardi Gras. Living in New Orleans provides a myriad of opportunities to don a costume, so I associated wigs with celebratory affairs, not chemo. My decision not to wear a wig throughout my first round of chemo treatments was also pragmatic; wigs are hot, trapping heat in their netted scalps and they tend bind and slide during the day, requiring constant adjustment.
The first time I wore a wig during treatment was to a winter costume party the December after I was first diagnosed. My husband and I wore matching blonde bobs, purchased years ago for Mardi Gras, under matching white top hats adorned with sequins and sprigs of snow covered greenery to match our all white suit jackets. Our looks garnered numerous compliments. We were clearly some of the best dressed people at the party and we stood out while I enjoyed blending in, masquerading as a healthy person for the first time.
One year later, I decided to try out a blonde wig for daily use. A friend and fellow cancer patient mentioned a free wig she got from the American Cancer Society, so I said what the hell and signed up for my own. I went to the Cancer Society’s local headquarters and tried on several options, eventually settling on a human hair blonde bob that rested in the space between my ears and shoulders. I brought the wig to my now former hairdresser for her to lighten the wig, evening out the tone to better suit my skin color.
I didn’t wear the wig every day but I did swap out my headscarfs and beanies for it once in a while. Scarves and hats felt like an extension of my outfit. The wig made me feel like I was playing a character in my own life. Some days it was fun to pretend like I had hair, other days the wig made me feel self conscious. Were people clocking me for wearing a wig? Did anyone even notice? I would go out in public bald, but when my hair started to grow back a second time I looked like a nestling bird, my scalp barely covered by down feathers.
I used to imagine stepping out of the shower and reaching for a towel to gently squeeze the water out of my saturated locks. I would run my fingers through my hair, carefully loosening the knots with my slightly numb fingertips, a permanent side effect of the chemotherapy I needed a long time ago. The numbness is faint but it is still there. Instead, I am beginning chemo a third time and there is no going back. My oncologist informed me that I will be on chemo for the rest of my life. Every time I end treatment the cancer comes back. After two years of clean brain scans, I had, according to my neurosurgeon, an area of concern in my left posterior frontal lobe where my original tumor was. The white matter on my MRI just sliver—the width of a penny and a dime stacked on top of each other, but it warranted removal. One of my lung tumors doubled in size and a new one popped up. My hair isn’t even as long as it was when I lost it for the second time. The chemo curls are just beginning to form, little flyaways are starting to lift themselves up, just in time for chemo to take them down once again. I look at myself in the mirror often, staring intently at each strand. This might be the last time I see my own hair ever again.
Christy Lorio is a New Orleans based writer and photographer living twenty miles from the swamps she grew up in. Christy holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The University of New Orleans, where she is currently pursuing a second MFA in Studio Art for photography. Her essays have appeared in 433 Mag, Barren Magazine, Cancer Wellness and Oxford American, among others. She is currently exploring the ways in which her writing and photography intersect.