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I loved my post-cancer hair

11.11. 2015 Written By: Debra Detwiler Brubaker 1,526 read

Dr. Debra Detwiler Brubaker is professor of music at Goshen College where she directs choirs, teaches voice, church music and world music courses. In 2004 she created the Goshen College Women’s World Music Choir which was an invited performer at the 2013 Indiana Music Educators Association conference in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and also performed at the 2008 Central Division conference of the American Choral Directors Association in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Debra is an accomplished hymn leader specializing in international music.

This article first appeared in the autumn 2015 Timbrel, the magazine of Mennonite Women USA. 

From the time I entered middle school back in the ’60s, I’ve had a difficult relationship with my head of hair. It’s fine, partially curly, partially straight; a lot of cowlicks in the wrong places. When all the other girls in school boasted straight shoulder-length hair parted in the middle, I was wrestling with which side of my head my part wanted to be on that day, and how fluffy or flat it would insist on being. Needless to say, I was the unusual one with short hair.

When I was 42, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The treatment would include chemotherapy, along with radiation and several surgeries. Since my hair and I were rarely on compatible terms, the idea of actually being without it didn’t overwhelm me. Several survivors had told me to buy a really good wig, so before my hair started falling out, I took two friends with me to a salon and had a morning of silliness trying on a variety of hairstyles. I ended up choosing one that looked a lot like my own hair. Then I waited for the inevitable.

The first hair loss happened about two weeks after the first round of chemo. I was in the shower and as my hands came away from rinsing through my hair, they were covered in hair. I remember whimpering at the sight, because it indicated that this horrible thing of cancer was really happening in my body. That was a hard moment.

I had no idea that I had as much hair as I did. Before my shower in the morning, I would spend several minutes running my hands through my dry hair, letting it come out in big bunches. The shower would take more out.

When it got to the point that just too much hair was falling out, it was time to take control. My husband at the time got out the hair trimmers and buzzed what was left of the hair on my head. I remember our two sons ages 10 and 12 watching the process. We made light of the situation so as not to make them worry too much, but I know that at least one of the boys seemed rather uncomfortable with the whole thing. Perhaps he, too, was seeing reality and not liking it.

Being bald had its benefits. Getting ready in the morning took a lot less time. There was no fussing with a hairdo that didn’t want to behave. Simply put on the wig and go. Many people at work didn’t even know I had transferred to a wig, as it was so similar to my own hair. Nighttime was not as fun, as a bald head gets cold very quickly and nightcaps don’t stay on that well.

Interestingly enough, my husband liked my bald head a lot. He had never been a fan of long hair, so my hair loss wasn’t an issue for him. For Christmas that year I decided to make him a present of a black and white photo of a bald me. I recruited a cousin who knew her way around a camera, then dressed up in my best black shirt, added a silver necklace and earrings, and carefully applied makeup.

I took my two boys with me to the shoot, and we took pictures of me alone as well as with them. We used up about four rolls of film and took a variety of poses. The last picture that was taken was the one we used. I love the look on my face in this one. It is calm, composed and sure. It’s the eyes that speak, and not any of the additional frills added by hair. I had the picture framed in a silver frame and gave it to my husband for Christmas. It sat on his dresser for years.

Once my hair started growing back in, I got additional gifts throughout the process. The initial grow-in comes as fine baby hair covering your scalp, just like the little ones whose heads we love to nuzzle. I spent a lot of time running my hand over my head, enjoying that lovely feeling.

Then the best thing of all happened: my hair came in very dark with some grey shot through and was intensely curly. I LOVED that hair and wished it could have stayed that way.

Now I’m back to the cowlicks and the daily struggle in front of the mirror, although I tell myself not to complain. Every day is a gift and I acknowledge that energetically. I know my hair, its strengths and its quirks. I wear it grey because it is pretty that way. And God’s knowledge and care keeps track of how many hairs are up there.

Addendum: About the same time that this Timbrel article appeared, I was diagnosed with a return of the breast cancer—this time in my spine. I’ve just finished two weeks of radiation treatments and am on a new oral chemo drug that has proven quite effective—and comes with no hair loss! A dear friend shared this quote with me, by Charles Williams: “Nothing is certain, everything is safe.” Most days, I can embrace that safety, especially when I remember that God is always, always bigger than cancer.


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