My life has been a series of medical struggles. From being diagnosed with breast cancer at age 19, to being deemed legally blind in 2012, I think it’s safe to say I’ve had more than my fair share of health issues. Despite everything I’ve been through, I continuously try my absolute hardest to be a good mother to my two small daughters, ages three and one. I want my girls to look up to me. I want them to be proud of me. But more than anything else in this world, I pray that God gives me the ability to teach them the art of perseverance when life presents them with an obstacle.
Sometimes I feel like my cancer is “the gift that keeps on giving.” I’ve been in remission for eight years, but the disease remains a black cloud over my health. Hair loss from chemotherapy is a common occurrence. Survivors know it’s par for the course. As women, we often feel our femininity is compromised and our outward beauty stolen from us as a result of our treatment. Doctors assure us that hair will grow back, but some of us are not that lucky.
Years after completing chemotherapy, I began to notice my hair was especially thin on the crown of my head. Well meaning friends and family also pointed out the issue, thinking my visual impairment prevented me from “seeing” what was lacking in the hair department.
Pictured: Holly’s scalp, showing thinning hair.
Trust me when I tell you, I was painfully aware of the situation. I could feel my naked scalp sting under teeth of my comb. I became an expert in strategically placing strands of hair in assigned positions in the hopes of creating a fuller effect. I didn’t want to make a big deal about my appearance, especially with two little girls around.
I tried to make the best of it until this week, when clumps of my hair began falling out – breaking for no apparent reason. After seeing my primary doctor, I was advised to see a dermatologist. The doctor examined me for several minutes while my heart pounded out of my chest. Upon completing his inspection, he told me I was suffering from two different kinds of hair diseases, “female pattern baldness” and “post-chemotherapy alopecia.” The combination of these two diagnoses provided a perfect storm for hair loss. Given the fact my hair was already thin; I was basically screwed.
Pictured: Bald patches appearing on Holly’s scalp after being diagnosed with “female pattern baldness” and “post chemotherapy alopecia.”
Somewhere in the midst of the doctor’s rather lengthy explanation; I began to hyperventilate. Tears streamed down my face and my ears began to burn. I didn’t just cry; I sobbed uncontrollably.
Why? Why was this happening to me? Haven’t I had enough? Blindness, now baldness.
The dermatologist sat patiently with me, tapping my knee as he spoke and instructing his nurse to bring me some water. Once I calmed down, he explained I was not a candidate for traditional oral treatment due to my previous cancer history. I could, however, try a hair growth cream if I wanted, but that also came with some pretty weighty side effects.
“What about a wig?” I asked.
The doctor agreed that certainly was a viable option. Too weak to walk back to my husband and daughters, the doctor brought me to the parking lot where my family was waiting. As he spoke to my husband outside our car, I tried to wipe tears from my face and turned up the car radio so my three-year-old wouldn’t hear any part of their conversation.
By the time we arrived back home, I was emotionally drained. I got my children up for their naps and locked myself in my bathroom for a good cry. My husband sat with me, holding me as I balled. “I’m not in love with your hair” he said. Truthfully, he was the least of my worries. I was more pre-occupied with emotional baggage attached to being the bald, blind mother of two little girls.
What was unfair for me was equally unfair for them. They didn’t deserve to have an “ugly” mommy. They already have to cope with a childhood where people question their mother’s ability to parent them because she is disabled. Now they had to deal with my complicated outward appearance as well with my new diagnosis of alopecia.
How I explained hair loss and alopecia to my daughter
The next morning, more hair had fallen out. It was obvious things were going to have to be done much faster than my husband and I were expecting. “We have to talk to her,” I said. “What are you going to say?” he asked. Even as a trained psychotherapist, I had absolutely no clue how I was going to explain my hair loss to my three-year-old. The three of us sat on our bed and my daughter looked at me, wide eyed.
“Mommy and daddy want to talk to you about something.” I said. “Mommy went to the doctor yesterday and he told me my hair is sick. That’s why it’s been falling off mommy’s head. So mommy is to get a special haircut and then I’m going to get a wig to wear – like in your dress up trunk.”
She sat un-phased. “Okay, mommy. Can I go play now?” “Sure.” I said. And with that, my toddler scooted off, back to her dinosaurs and princess dolls.
The next day, in the solitude of my bathroom, I shook the remaining hair from my scalp and carefully took a razor to the rest. If I was destined to be bald – then this blind chick was going to have a say in when it was going to happen. Forty minutes later – I looked at my blurry reflection in the mirror. I was still me. I was still there, just with a lot less hair
Pictured: Holly bald wearing her “The Mighty” t-shirt.
My youngest child had no clue what had happened, but appeared to enjoy the tactile sensation of rubbing the back of my scalp. My older girl fearfully gazed at me.
“It’s okay baby, it’s mommy.”
“Mommy, I don’t like your new style. You look ugly.” she said.
That’s when my husband stepped in, scooping her up. “This is mommy’s new hair cut. Her hair was sick and it didn’t want to stay on her head anymore. Mommy still loves you. Mommy still takes care of you, feeds you, reads to you. And we will love mommy because mommy always loves us.”
I could feel the lump lodged in my throat getting bigger. I was trying not to cry.
“Ok, daddy” she said and ran over and hugged me.
Children are amazing creatures. They can be brutally honest, especially when you’d prefer them not to be. What my little girl said to me hurt me deeply, but I know she is a child and she will adapt to my new diagnosis just as she has to my visual impairment.
Our health is a journey, filled with peaks and valleys. I am stuck in a deep valley now, but I will climb towards that peak with the support of my family behind me.
I will give myself the time I need to feel and process my alopecia diagnosis.
If I need to cry; I will.
If I need to yell, so be it.
Hopefully, my experience will educate others on this disease and help other women to understand they don’t have to be ashamed of hair loss.
My husband and daughters continue to be the root of my existence. Unlike hair, that bond will never be broken.