The Cat on My Head: A Chemo Patient Searches for the Right Head Fashion

Am I a wig person or a scarf person? A chemo patient’s search for a fashion solution yields unexpected results

by Jenny Allen
wig chemotherapy headscarf
Photograph: Illustrated by Juliette Borda

Every time you look in the mirror, your baldness reminds you that you are very sick, in spite of all the cheerfulness and optimism you’ve talked yourself into. If you’re wearing a scarf, people assume you’re forthright about your cancer, and they ask you how you’re feeling. “I’m good! I’m good!” I kept saying, but the more I said it, the less I believed it, which made me say it even more forcefully. “I’m great! Doing great!” But I wasn’t doing that great. Especially when people looked at me as if they were about to cry

After a few weeks, I’m tired of my daily uniform of scarves and bandannas. I look like a lady pirate or one of those 100-year-old women pushing their grocery carts down Broadway.

Then my eyebrows fall out. For some reason, this is totally unexpected and makes me feel surprisingly sorry for myself. My hair was part of my head, but my eyebrows were part of my face. Having no eyebrows makes me feel very vulnerable. I look like a baby, a bald, eyebrowless baby, and I am so sorry for the baby, I feel like crying when I look at her in the mirror.

I want a buffer between my head and the world. I want to take the attention off my hairlessness. I want people to stop looking at me as if they’re about to cry. I’m ready for my wig.

My friend’s daughter is graduating from the University of Chicago, and this seems like the perfect occasion to wear my wig. I fly to Chicago, and the morning of the graduation, I put the wig on and head over to the campus. Right away I know I should have been practicing wearing my wig all these weeks. I fuss with it, fretting about stray hairs of my own sticking out. I feel like an impostor, as if I’ve just robbed a bank and am trying to blend in with the crowd by going incognito.

The ceremony is outdoors. It’s only 10 in the morning and already 97 degrees. In the crowd, I see Eden, an editor of mine from New York. Her son is also graduating. Eden is a wonderful editor and a kind one. Instead of saying, “This piece is way too long,” she’ll say, “This lovely piece is going to be so hard to cut!” She’s also very organized, so it doesn’t surprise me when she says, “Here, Jenny! Take one of these!” and holds out a stack of wide-brimmed sun hats that she’s brought along.

I thank her, take one of the hats and put it on—partly so I don’t get sunburned, mostly so I won’t feel as self-conscious. My wig will be under wraps.

I sit down in an ocean of folding chairs. The ceremony starts, and it goes on and on. By the second hour or so, my head is baking. No, broiling. Lines of sweat roll down from under my wig onto my neck. My wig feels heavier and hotter by the minute; I might as well be wearing my cat on my head. If I take off the sun hat, maybe my wig will let some air onto my head. And so I take off the hat and—in one of those slow-motion moments that seem at once like a dream and the realest, truest thing that has ever happened to you—the wig comes off with the hat.

The moment is beyond embarrassing. Embarrassment doesn’t begin to describe my feeling. I’ve lost everything—hat, wig and hair—and feel strangely free. I laugh, because this reminds me of a Lucy episode. I put the wig and hat right back on—for the people behind me. I feel bad for having shocked them.

When I get home, I stash the wig in the back of my dresser drawer, and when I go out, I stick to scarves. After my chemo is done, my hair grows back. It’s the same old hair, but for the first time in my life, I’m glad to see it.

My wig stays in the back of my dresser drawer. I can’t imagine throwing away anything so expensive.

Ruth’s hair grows back, too, and we have fun doing normal things—-worrying about our children, eating the delicious food she cooks, telling funny stories about having cancer. She does the best rendition of something that happens a lot when you have cancer: People tell you an inspiring story about a mother or aunt who went into remission and then got a PhD or took up sailing and had a whole new life.

“How’s she doing?” you ask the teller of the story.

“Oh. She died,” they say.

Share Your Thoughts!


Jill 09.26.2012

I was a ballcap person - specifically, a ballcap with "Chemo Sucks" written on it. I also purchased a $900 wig that insurance reimbursed me for - and never wore. I donated my wig to a local agency that gives them to young cancer patients that can't afford wigs themselves. The American Cancer Society can put you in touch with an agency in your area. Please donate your unused or gently used wigs, because other women may very well be "wig people".

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