A Very Hairy Experience

I’ve been wanting to write about my hair and I haven’t. It’s not because it’s too soon or too sensitive of a topic. Also, hair is just a really weird topic to discuss in my opinion. Originally, I was going to write about the journey of my hair loss and be done with it (because it’s a very unique and special story). Very cut and dry. But my hair loss meant more to me than just some simple story and I couldn’t figure out why. So I waited until I could pinpoint what it was that prevented me from writing this particular post. As it turns out, I placed a lot more emphasis on my hair than I realized. Chances are, you probably do too.

But you’re telling me, “Oh Dana! Outward appearances don’t mean anything, especially my hair! I could cut my hair off and go bald no problem!”

Well that’s great and all, but what if you were forced to lose your hair strand by strand? Would you feel as nonchalant about the matter then? I’m guessing not.

Before this whole cancer issue came to be, I took great pride in my hair. It was this dark brown and… well, here’s a photo. Okay, a few photos. It’s easier than trying to describe it with some cheesy adjectives and comparisons. I apologize for any and all grainy photos. During this process, I didn’t take many photos (for personal reasons) and any that were taken were on camera phones. So you can imagine (and experience) the grainy photo cringe. Moving on.

When I was diagnosed, I knew I was going to lose my hair. Unless the chemotherapy is non-aggressive or nonexistent, hair loss is likely. Since I was 20 and in stage 2 already, my oncologist and I would have no problem doing round after round of intensive chemo. So after that conversation with my oncologist, I called up my sister, Nicole, and asked her to get me an appointment with a hair stylist as soon as possible (note: Nicole is my actual sister’s best friend that I grew up with, so, she’s basically my sister. And, for simplicity’s sake, I’m calling her one of my sisters.) Nicole is some sort of human telephone book who knows anyone and everyone and she got me an appointment with Allure Hair Design in Stevens Point, WI the very next day.

What was I doing walking into a salon when all my hair was going to fall out anyways? You see, I had made a joke to my friends and family that if the lump in my neck
turned out to be cancer, I would let everyone know in a fun way by dying my hair mermaid colors.

And then the joke became a reality so, for obvious reasons, I had to go through with it.

Seven hours and lots of hair dye fumes later, I became a colorful mermaid. I was ready to pay for this whole endeavor in full. If I wasn’t going to be buying hair products for a while, I might was well spend my money on something fun. As I’m about to check out, Nicole looks at me and just says, “Don’t worry. I’ve got it.”

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Nicole if you’re reading this, and I haven’t said it enough yet, thank you so much. I love you and I will never be able to express how much I appreciate your existence and your gratitude. Also your co-mermaiding with me. That was cool.

We get into the car and Nicole is driving me back to my dorm when she says, “Okay. I didn’t want to say anything until we got in the car because she asked me not to, but I have to tell you something.”

“Okay, what is it?” I reply.

“Do you remember the woman I was talking to while you were in the hair dryer chair?”

“Somewhat.”

“Well, she and I were talking about you and why you were dying your hair to such extreme colors, and basically she wanted to pay it forward and she helped pay for your appointment.”

I was stunned. That was so sweet and kind. I have no idea who she was or what her story is, but I’m so thankful to her as well. I’m grateful to a lot of people, but when it comes to making my hair transformation a great experience, Nicole, Allure Hair Design and that wonderful woman are where my thanks are greatest.

So Nicole took me home and when I came home, I found my roommates and some friends dying part of their hair purple for mermaid support! It was very cool and definitely fun to watch them struggle with at-home hair dye, trying not to get it all over everything.

I’ve got to say, mermaid hair was definitely a fun look. I normally don’t do crazy colors or crazy anything with my hair, so, to go from my usual look to this insane amount of color was quite a change and a good one at that. Even as the color faded, I still felt like my hair looked like a glorious coral reef. That is, until I started finding giant blue tumbleweeds scattered across my apartment.

Before I continue, I am not looking for sympathy or pity. I am writing this because it’s an experience that I want to share with you from my perspective. Whether you clicked here because you know me and want to learn more about my experience, or, this is your first time on My Bright Corner, I simply want to share my story. It’s my hope that by opening up about my cancer journey, people will feel less intimidated to have dialogue about cancer or its effects without feeling like they’re being offensive or rude. While I can’t speak for others, I don’t find it off-putting when people have questions about cancer. If I did, I wouldn’t be writing about it.

Back on subject. Blue tumbleweeds. Hair loss. Again, every cancer patient undergoing
intensive chemo knows that they’re going to lose their hair, and I was ready for it. At least I thought so. I thought that by dying my hair it would prove that I was ready for this journey and all the insanity it would put me through and that started with hair loss.

I know what you’re visualizing: me pulling out clumps of hair out of my head while sitting in the bathroom, but no. It wasn’t like that at all. I didn’t have bald patches or massive clumps of hair fall out of my head. It just started thinning at a rapid rate so you couldn’t really see the hair loss at first unless you watched me run my fingers through my hair and see all the hair left in my hands.

After a couple days, the hair started coming out of my head so quickly that it would get stuck in the hair still attached to my head and it was creating enormous dreadlocks I couldn’t get out with just a hair brush. I texted Layne and Nicole and told them what was going on and told them it was time for a shave. Both of them were very excited but couldn’t do it until the weekend, several days from our initial talk. I would just have to deal with it in the meantime.

A couple more days past and I was fed up with these stupid knots. I bought a metal comb and the biggest bottle of conditioner I could find. I then sat in the shower for well over an hour and a half and proceeded to comb out every last knot. What I didn’t realize until I was done was that I had combed out over two thirds of my hair. What was once a full braid was now a
faded blue rat tail that I’m pretty sure a rat wouldn’t even want. I was just ready for the hair to be gone. I was scared about being bald but I was done with whatever this thinning crap was. To put me at ease until the big day, Layne and Nicole would send me pictures of bald women celebrities who rocked the look either for a role or because they wanted to embrace the bald look for personal reasons.

The big day came and it was my turn to embrace the look. Layne was
giddy to live out her childhood dream of shaving off her little sister’s hair and I was nervous as could be.

What if it didn’t look good?

Could I handle being bald?

Did it even matter?

Too late. The hair was gone. And I looked pretty good! Bonus was that I felt pretty good too! Being bald was such an easy look in that I didn’t have to do anything to maintain it. I saved a ton on hair products and I got to sleep in a little longer in the morning. Even though I was bald, I still looked and felt like me. The worst part of hair loss is shaving the head. It had to be, right? I had conquered the worst part, right?

Nope. When you go through chemo, you lose your hair. All of it. Your legs, armpits, nose hairs, all of it goes away. I think that’s something people forget because all they see are the movie versions of cancer patients and most celebrities aren’t willing to shave absolutely everything. I know I had that impression as well until I shaved my legs and the hair didn’t grow back. Or when the hairs on my arms turned into thin, blonde hairs and then were gone altogether.

Or when my eyebrows and eyelashes fell off.

You know those pictures of celebrities without eyebrows or hair and they don’t look like themselves whatsoever? That was me every time I looked in the mirror except I couldn’t just walk away from it. That was what I looked like and I was stuck with it. I didn’t feel like me. I didn’t look like me. I wasn’t me.

I am a huge advocate for loving yourself inside and out, especially after this. But sometimes it can be incredibly difficult to love yourself completely when you can’t even recognize yourself in a mirror.

I kid you not, going out in public was incredibly difficult. If I did go into public, I could guarantee at least three people who would openly stare at me with either pity, horror, disbelief or some awful concoction of all three. I didn’t know I placed so much importance on my appearance, or how self-conscious I truly was. Maybe it’s because I was horrified at the concept of looking weak in front of others. Without hair, eyebrows and having skin that was practically translucent, I officially looked like my disease. And my disease was ugly. The photo underneath this was really hard for me to post so please be nice. It was one my mom took of me when we were having a heart to heart right before the last chemo session. Again, it might not seem very dramatic for you, but when I see this photo, I see a different me. A sick me. But still me somewhere in there.

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I tried to joke it off with friends and family and let them know that I was okay by being confident in my appearance. When I was alone? That’s when the doubt set in, which always seems to be the way: your fears and doubts striking when you’re at your most vulnerable. My internal struggle continued. How do I become okay with the person that I look like? How do I become okay with not feeling pretty? With not feeling feminine? With not feeling like me?

The truth is, it took a long time, but at some point, I came to the understanding that my femininity’s source doesn’t derive from my looks or my hair, that’s just how it manifests itself to the outer world. I could still be feminine without eyebrows and eyelashes, I’d just have to figure out a different way to let it out. The me I know doesn’t vanish just because what I see in the mirror is different. My friends and family don’t love me any less because of it. And dammit, I shouldn’t either.

I know that these seem like very petty lessons to learn, but when you’re dealing with them first hand? They’re a whole lot bigger than the petty surface level. It took a lot of self-motivation and reinforcement to deal with these lessons and reach a point where I actually believed what I was telling myself.

I cannot emphasize enough how lucky I am. It’s not lucky to get cancer, but it is lucky to get cancer with a very high remission rate and relatively fast treatment process. So many people go through chemotherapy for years and have these internal battles for years. Sometimes for the rest of their life.

So I lost my all my hair. You know what? This was an opportunity for me to have everything be put into perspective, whether I knew I needed it or not.

I am so lucky that my body responded to my treatment and I’m in full remission, all within a year’s time. And every day I see the effects of the chemo fading from my body. My hair is getting thicker, color returning to my skin. My eyebrows are coming back. Every day I look a little bit more like myself and feel a little more like myself too. And, I am beautiful!!

 

Until Next Time,

 

Dana Qualy

 

Bonus photo of me that I took today so you can see the total progress! As you can see, my eyebrows are almost completely filled in and my hair is coming back thicker, stronger and better than ever (Layne told me that I have now achieved Chia Pet status).

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