A few years ago I was diagnosed with cancer, and about five minutes later I started having chemotherapy. I expected to lose my hair, but I didn’t care that much. I’ve always felt a little distanced from it. I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, when hair was supposed to fall in great lank sheets to your waist, but mine was naturally curly, so kids called me Medusa.
Still, the prospect of not having any hair forces you to take stock of your personal style, your sense of yourself. What kind of cancer person was I going to be? How would I wear my disease? Would I cover it up, or would I announce it to the world?
In other words: Would I be a scarf person or a wig person? The scarf person knows that people will see she’s bald and will probably ask why. The wig person hopes that even if people notice her wig, they will assume she’s wearing it because she doesn’t want to talk about why; she just wants to blend in.
I decided that my truer, if slightly holier-than-thou, self would wear a scarf. A wig would be dishonest. I wasn’t ashamed of having cancer. I would go out into the world in my scarves and bandannas, and to hell with discretion.
One night, after I’d started chemo but before it made my hair fall out, I ran into my friend Ruth. By horrible coincidence, we had the same kind of cancer—only Ruth was much further down the chemo path than I was and had already lost her hair. When I’d seen her a few weeks earlier, she’d been wearing a scarf, but now I noticed that her hair had grown back.
I said, “Ruth, your hair looks so great!”
“It’s a wig!” she said. “I never thought I’d wear one, but sometimes I do when I go out. It feels dressy. A little creepy, but dressy.”
When I looked more closely, I could tell it was a wig, but it still looked nice. And if Ruth felt good in a wig, maybe I would, too.
Then Ruth said, “My medical insurance covered the whole thing.” This seemed so bizarre as to be almost unbelievable, and reason enough to get a wig. It was swag, even if you were getting it for having cancer. When was I ever going to get this chance again?
The wig store Ruth recommended, Bitz-n-Pieces, is on the third floor of an office building right near Columbus Circle in New York City. My fitter is a Frenchman named Gwen. Gwen is cool at first, practicing his native country’s ancient art of rudeness.
“What do you want,” he says.
“A wig,” I say.
“What kind of air.”
“What kind of hair? How many kinds are there?”
“We ’ave synthetic wigs, wigs made from the air of Indian women and wigs made from European air.”
Wigs made from the hair of Caucasian European women cost $4,000 to $5,000, but the Indian wigs go for about $900. Why is the hair of Caucasian women four times as expensive as the hair of Indian women? Much better to go with the Indian women’s hair, even though I know they’ve been paid 22 cents to have it shaved from their heads.
I settle on a nice, unassuming brown wig. It doesn’t look that wiggy—more like I’ve finally gotten a good haircut. The hair behaves, falling in nice layers, and it has soft bangs. I look casual but put together, maybe for the first time.
In the hour he spends shaping the wig to my head by trimming and styling it, Gwen gets much nicer. He has cancer, too, and spent months wearing a wig; his own hair has just grown back.
Gwen sends me home with a big bag, which contains my wig on a Styrofoam head. “Take good care of it, my dear,” he says. “Bonne chance.” And we hug.
I leave my wig on the Styrofoam head in a corner of my bedroom. It’s spooky to look at, like a specter that is much better groomed than I am.
A few weeks go by, and my hair falls out. When you have chemo, your hair doesn’t fall out all at once. It gradually gives up the ghost, first in strands and then in little tufts that clump in the shower drain and make you think there’s a dead mouse in there.
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.
I always say, “Do it again, Ruth! Do the inspiring people!” We crack each other up with our stories.
Then, two years later, Ruth has a recurrence of her cancer, and this time she dies of it. Eden, my editor, who didn’t know at the graduation that she had cancer, dies, too.
All this makes throwing away the wig seem cocky. Who am I to say that I’m done with being sick, that I might not have some occasion when I’ll need it again? Then one day I read a magazine article on decluttering your closet and how you must ask yourself, realistically, if you are ever again going to wear that old bridesmaid’s dress or those culottes, and how if you aren’t, you must get rid of them.
And I think, Realistically? Realistically, I might need those chemo drugs again, I might lose my hair again, but I would never, ever wear that stupid wig again. Better to wear the stupid scarves and have people look as if they’re about to cry. Better to let the other women walking around with no hair see that I’m one of them.
And I threw it away.
Essayist and performer JENNY ALLEN is author of the play I Got Sick Then I Got Better.
Related: How Breast Cancer Changed Me
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