One of the least enjoyable parts of getting diagnosed with breast cancer has been explaining what’s going on to my kids. This week marked my eighth round of chemotherapy, or as I explained it to my son and daughter, “the medicine Mommy has to get to help make her better.”
“Like Grandma?” asked G. In the first photographs of G, hours after her birth, my mom proudly holds her; she has an enormous smile that reflects her joy at having a granddaughter. Her head is bald. It was a few weeks after the end of one of her many rounds of chemo, and her hair hadn’t started to grow back yet. She would be bald – on and off chemo – throughout the lives of both of my children. They were used to Grandma’s ever-changing hair looks. And now that’s carried over to me. There’s something both poignant and terrible that my chemo-induced hair loss isn’t shocking to either of my kids.
“Yes, like Grandma,” I replied sadly.
“Will you wear a wig?” R asked.
“Do you want me to?”
The kids thought about it.
“Yes,” G replied finally.
“Why?” I asked.
“It would be embarrassing if people saw you bald,” she said.
My heart broke a little. “Why would it be embarrassing?”
G explained. “What if a kid at school saw you without hair and asked me ‘why is your mom bald?’ That would make me sad.”
I understood: it wouldn’t be embarrassing; it would be hard. If I wear a wig, we’re like everybody else. Other kids will notice them because of who they are, not because their mom is sick.
So I wear a wig. Were it not for kids, I might have skipped the wig, sticking with a hat or scarf. But my kids’ need for normalcy outweighs my comfort or my preferences. That’s parenting: making choices that are in the best interests of your kids. That responsibility doesn’t go away when you have cancer.
To make the wig wearing more palatable, I have three of them, which, I admit, is excessive. The first one is pink; a shag cut that is perfect for a party or Halloween. I got it to make my kids laugh, and because who doesn’t want pink hair. I haven’t yet worn it outside my home. Until I do, my daughter wears it around the house, dancing and laughing. She sees the wig as part theatrics, part make believe, and all joy. That’s a good lesson for me.
My second wig is called a “halo.” Designed to go under a hat or scarf, the promotional materials describes this wig as “cool and comfortable.” Which of course it isn’t, though it’s not nearly as itchy as a full wig. I wear this one most regularly. I’ve had people compliment my hat when I have it on, never noticing that the hair that flows out from under it is fake.
That brings us to the final wig, the big one. My oncologist wrote me a prescription for this wig – a “hair prosthesis” to be exact. I didn’t realize that’s how it worked – that my health insurance would cover the cost of a wig – and it struck me as odd. But then so much of this cancer thing strikes me as odd.
My wig is a Raquel Welch, baby! She has her own line of wigs. I had no idea that celebrities turn to wig making as a second career; it’s a smart idea as those wigs are expensive – several hundreds of dollars expensive. Wigs are one of the moments that I am struck by how fortunate I am to have comprehensive health insurance. From chemo to doctor’s appointments to hair prosthesis, getting cancer is costly. I think a lot about women who don’t have access to the care I have. This experience is already too much; having to worry about money on top of it is cruel.
To get to my Raquel Welch, I tried on dozens of wigs – from short blonde hair to long dark, curly hair. The first few of the wigs induced tears, but quickly, I got into the groove of trying on new looks. It was a new me with each wig, though not exactly me – more like a variation on a theme. It helped that I had brought a friend along with me for the wig shopping, a friend with a wicked sense of humor and great style. I recommend that to everyone doing something unpleasant: bring a good friend and laughter.
After a bit of joking and trying on wigs that were wildly inappropriate, wig selection became enjoyable, if you can believe it. It helped that the wigs had names like “Janelle,” “Angelica,” and “Hailey.” They all sounded like Playboy Playmates circa 1986, and, after a few of them, I started selecting wigs to try on based upon name alone. Alas, there was no “Kimberly” wig at the shop I frequented. In the end, the wig I selected was called something like “Crowd Pleaser,” not as alluring as “Angelica” but it makes sense that Raquel wouldn’t name her wigs after other women. There can be only one Raquel after all. I’ve worn this wig only a few times, primarily when having on a hat – to go over my halo – would not be suitable for the occasion.
I purchased special shampoo to wash my wigs, all of which are synthetic. That shampoo plus my halo and pink wigs cost me about $75. You can purchase wigs made of real hair, which are more expensive, but I passed on that on the advice of a friend who is a cancer survivor. Real hair wigs are just like real hair; they need to be washed and styled regularly. I’m looking for easy on, easy off these days, so synthetic is a better fit for me.
The kids are satisfied with the wigs, and they have gotten used to me wearing one. I’m still self-conscious about it, but that’s a bit expected, I imagine. My hair will grow back – everyone assures me it will – and I secretly hope it comes back different – perhaps red or curly – as a gift for getting through all of this. No matter what it looks like, I’ll be grateful to have part of me back. When that happens, I’ll put the wigs in a shoebox in the back of the closet, and hope I never have to use them again.