Tuesday night we shaved my head.
My hair started falling out last Saturday morning. Not that much, just a few stands when I pulled. By Monday, just running my fingers through it would grab a few. Tuesday morning was the same and I figured I could wait until the weekend to take it all off. But Tuesday night, when I was climbing, I went to redo my ponytail and a small handful came out without any effort. Same thing happened a minute later.
I’m not traumatized by shaving my head. I didn’t want to hold onto something that, every time I touched it, reminded me that I was sick. I have a healthy head of very thick hair that I probably could have milked for a few weeks to come. But to do so seemed like a lie, or as if I were pretending in some superficial, pathetic way that I weren’t that sick. Or that the cancer hadn’t yet taken a toll on my body. Plus, I actually look pretty excellent bald (I was blessed with a well shaped head).
To say I wear my illness proudly wouldn’t be accurate. Pride isn’t something I feel when I think about having cancer or managing treatment. I’m often praised for my bravery or good nature in the face of crisis, but like shaving my head and going bald most of the time (I have wigs I wear for special occasions, and hats when I’m cold), the way I approach having cancer has nothing to do with pride or a misplaced sense of inner strength. Instead, I think of being diagnosed as hovering in the middle space of existence: nothing so important that it shifts who I am as a person, but nothing so minimal that I get to ignore it completely.
My primary job as a human these days is to show up at treatment. There’s no getting around that. And though I take that job very seriously, I don’t always want to do it. Right after I decided we would shave my head that night, I chose a new 5.8 warm up on. But three quarters of the way up the wall of this first climb, I came to an overhang that stressed the muscles over my implant. They’ve been hurting a lot lately, as they’re new growth and the taxol attacks growing cells first. I tried making my way across the overhang three times before the pain overwhelmed my normal calm and I panicked on the wall. I wasn’t afraid but more deeply frustrated — my job as a cancer patient was interfering with my job as a rock climber. Reliable Belayer Cheerful Boyfriend lowered me off the wall and I pushed my head into his chest, crying. I said, “I don’t want to do this anymore.”
When I was first diagnosed, before it was even official and there was still a chance I had a weird unrelated spot on my lung and a liver fungus, I sat in one of the oncology ward offices with Wonderful Oncology Nurse, Amazing Best Friend, and Worried Cheerful Boyfriend as we reviewed the preliminary results of my scans. I knew about my liver and lung mets, but when Wonderful Oncology Nurse read “lesions on the L1 section of your vertebrae,” I felt suddenly shaky. Until then, I had other possibilities to hang onto. With that moment, however, chance turned into certainty. Again, I found myself in tears, this time sobbing onto Wonderful Oncology Nurse’s scrubs. “You won’t always want to do this,” she said to me, “but we’ll be here, and we’ll make sure you still do it. Just show up.”
As I sat on the edge of my bathtub and watched the pile of hair to my right grow bigger as Tough Cheerful Boyfriend buzzed it off and Loving Supportive Roommates looked on with iPhone cameras and plenty of alcohol, I felt this weird combination of reluctance, numbness, and isolation. I had been almost eager to shave my head because keeping my hair recalled at best a farce and at worst a subtle but sharp reminder that I was sick and the solution was poison. Yet as we were shaving it, it struck me hard that this illness was real, that we were eliminating one of the last veils of normal I could duck behind in everyday life. Now, even when I teach, ride, climb, write, whatever, I’m a cancer patient.
That sounds daunting and depressing, but it’s not. My baldness isn’t endlessly overwhelming or a source of independence. It’s just baldness, just another form of beauty or appearance. In the same way, my willingness to always be a cancer patient — to always show up to the job — isn’t pride or strength or bravery either. It’s just who I am, who I am capable of being as an individual and a human being. I do nothing more or nothing less than anyone else in my position could do or has to do. I live in the middle ground of treatment and work, chemo and climbing. I am a teacher, a casual yet energetic living room dancer, a lover of ponies, a connoisseur of Massachusetts pizza, a cancer patient. None of these identities define me, but they all contribute to who I am every day.
So shaving my head isn’t so bad. It says, in some ways, “I’m sick,” but it also says “I have a neat sense of style and a well shaped head.” It says whatever I want it to say. And today, as I’m on my way to chemo in a couple hours, it says “I’m willing to be a cancer patient.” It says, loud and clear, “Here I am. I’m showing up.”