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Stanford University School of Medicine

After cancer, mourning the loss of one’s hair

Brooke V 2My hair used to be a safety blanket for me. Sometimes I'd gain five pounds or break out or wear a regrettable outfit, but my fabulous hair usually saved me. And so the second question I asked upon being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia -- after my percent chance of living -- was “How soon will I lose my hair?” About two weeks.

As you’d expect, my hair wasn't at first a major focus: I was more concerned with my critical illness. Still, I soon knew my hair was leaving me. Long, blonde strands between my fingers, clumps rinsed out with my shampoo. Not since I was 12 -- when I had donated my hair to Locks of Love then bawled in the barber’s chair -- had my hair failed to reach my mid-back.

I worked hard for that hair. It was deep conditioned weekly, trimmed and brushed religiously, braided and twisted and tied daily. It was as much a part of me as my Stanford education and love for cold beaches and neutral solid clothing garments. That’s to say, a significant part. Soon, I feared, I would be a full-on Kid with Cancer, like the ones in sad commercials or on those weird paper stands in nail salons where you cover the faces with quarters. Would that be all of what remained of me?

I was a baby about it, something for which I will not apologize. When a nurse suggested that I preemptively cut my hair shorter, I doubled down on my refusal to be a Kid with Cancer, as if this would prevent the inevitable. So, everybody who entered my hospital room left a bit hairier. I could feel it on my legs when I slept, curled between my sheets and blankets and IV tubes. My visitors had to clean ridiculous amounts of hair from places you didn’t even think hair could get, but no one had the heart to make me feel bad about it because of the leukemia thing.

Soon, of course, I was bald. There were logistical issues, like when you're in the shower it's confusing where the face wash ends and the head wash (?) begins. Overall, though, it was okay. There was a sense of contentment, in the same way that I wasn't in a hurry to leave the hospital since I knew it was where I needed to be. The caveat to this, of course, was that there would be life after treatment, life with hair and outside of the hospital. I wrote to my friends not to worry, because “I plan to come back just like post-2007 Britney, except minus the tacky Vegas show.”

You know that feeling when you've eaten slightly off food, and you're trying to decide which way the situation is going to tip? Is it going to be okay? Are you going to spend the next 48 hours in the bathroom regretting every bite? Well, as my hair began to grow in, about six months after I had a bone marrow transplant, I got this feeling. Bald patches on the sides; thin, brittle texture; drab, muted brown. I waited patiently. Maybe it would fill in. Soon enough, as my hair continued to struggle, the dread growing in my mind settled into terror.

It became clear that my hair wasn’t growing back the way it should. And yet the people around me refused to admit this. They would insist they could barely tell, or that it would grow in thicker later. Of course, I had done my research and knew it would not -- knew that my doctors had concluded it was likely permanent. Sometimes, I quietly accept comments on my hair’s potential for growth; other times, frustration bursts from my mouth. Am I not allowed to complain and mourn my hair?

The hair I had before was virgin hair, soft and undisturbed. The word virgin rolls around my mouth so uncomfortably, the idea that purity is better, that experience soils a person. But in a body riddled with poison, I want a little purity. Long, blonde hair and green smoothies and sweet sunshine.

I had cancer. To insist that I cannot, or should not, mourn what I have lost is not only impossible, it is inhuman. I can still want to feel beautiful, to feel myself.

Brooke Vittimberga, Stanford ’17, is a human biology major, blogger, and research assistant at the Stanford Cancer Institute. On June 18, 2015, she was diagnosed with high-risk AML, and she had a sibling-matched bone marrow transplant on September 24, 2015. This piece is part of a series in which she'll share her experiences.

Photo courtesy of Brooke Vittimberga

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