Going bald is a family affair for Laura Berman
BY DR. LAURA BERMAN firstname.lastname@example.org
Laura Berman and her family, who are supporting her efforts to fight cancer by also shaving their heads in love for her and their family. L-r are: Sammy Chapman (8 years old), Sam Chapman, Jackson Chapman (6 years old) , and Dr. Laura Berman. | Al Podgorski!~Chicago Sun-Times
Hair was the last thing on my mind when I went to what I imagined to be a routine oncology follow-up after my breast cancer surgery in January.
But that would soon change as I learned that my cancer actually was HER2 positive, which means that my body makes a growth factor receptor that promotes the growth of cancer cells and makes the cancer much more aggressive. The cancer was gone, but the odds that it wouldn’t come back were not.
I first wrote in February about my breast cancer and subsequent mastectomy of my left breast, and thought at that time I would not need radiation or chemotherapy.
Now, with the discovery that my cancer was HER2 positive, the treatment plan changed. I would have 12 weeks of chemotherapy and Herceptin (generic name Trastuzumab), which specifically targets HER2, kills these cancer cells and reduces the risk of recurrence.
After the shock subsided and initial medical concerns were allayed, thoughts of hair — my hair — flooded my mind. Like most women, I’ve always been rather attached to my hair. I hadn’t worn it above my shoulders since I got it bobbed as a kid and looked more like Sir Lancelot than a Vidal Sassoon model. Now I was going to be bald, at least for a while.
After a good long cry and heaping helping of self-pity, I tried to look on the bright side. After all, it’s summer — I’d be nice and cool. No washing and styling my hair. I could get some face paint and actually paint some eyes on the back of my head to match the ones that, as a mom, already are there. But I was still scared wondering how the world would react to me without my long, blond security blanket of hair.
Soon, however, I discovered I wouldn’t be hairless alone. I was unbelievably touched when my husband, Sam, told me he planned to shave his head in solidarity. My oldest son was away for the summer, but when my two youngest boys heard Sam’s plans they wanted to join in. All their hair came off during one big shaving party two weeks before mine fell out so, as my husband put it, they could welcome me to the bald club when it was my time.
Truthfully, having the bald club already established when it was my turn was a huge gift. It wasn’t nearly as scary for me, or for them. They are loud and proud about it, and it has helped me be, too.
At times I actually really enjoy being bald! Who knew how good it would feel to rub scented oil all over your bald head after a shower? Or, how cool different fabrics and textures can feel on newly exposed skin. I discovered how good a dip in a swimming pool feels on your scalp on a hot summer day. Getting ready in the morning now is so easy.
It is liberating, and I am embracing my inner bald chick with gusto. It doesn’t hurt that my sweet husband tells me I remind him of Lieutenant Ilia (the late Persis Khambatta), the bald — and sexy — female character in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.”
Yet I look around me and see few to no other openly bald women around. I know I’m not the only one. Among celebrities, Melissa Etheridge performed in concert while bald as a result of chemotherapy and Kylie Minogue cut off her hair after her diagnosis. But during my weekly chemo treatments I have not seen one bald woman who isn’t covering her head with a scarf, hat or wig.
I started asking around, and here are the main reasons I’ve learned women don’t embrace their inner bald chick:
Our hair defines us: I’m no exception. My hair has been a central part of my image in the media and a source of my feelings of femininity and sense of attractiveness. Women are bombarded with media images of lustrous long locks that are supposedly the key to our beauty and sexiness. As a country, we spend billions of dollars on products and services, coloring, cutting and styling our hair.
Last weekend I was with a girlfriend who accidentally turned her weave into a rats’ nest while swimming in Lake Michigan. The irony was not lost on me as I witnessed the depth and breadth of her meltdown when she thought she might have to cut off all her hair.
What I have discovered is that without my hair, I feel more authentically myself than ever before. I no longer have a shield between me and the rest of the world. It is amazingly empowering to let go of something you think defines you, only to discover you are an a truer version of yourself without it. It’s like letting go of an anchor that’s holding you down.
We don’t want to reveal our “diagnosis”: Those of us with cancer worry we will experience prejudices at work or in our community, that others will pity or write us off. The American Disabilities Act now protects the rights of people with cancer in the workplace. Yet the word “cancer” still is whispered in hushed tones and with so much unnecessary shame attached.
Revealing your medical status is a personal decision, but we must let go of the shame. This is a disease that affects more than 10 million people around the world every year. If you have cancer, you need all the mental and physical strength and focus you can muster to get through it and heal successfully.
Worrying about other’s reactions to your bald head is a waste of precious resources, not to mention the freedom and aliveness that comes with letting go of the need to hide it. This unnecessary taboo begins to be lifted when you are no longer afraid. Shout it from the rooftops. You are a warrior and part of a club of millions of amazing survivors.
We don’t want to make others uncomfortable: Given my chosen career as a sex therapist, it’s pretty clear I don’t get intimidated by other people’s uncomfortable reactions to me or what I’m doing. But I realize I’m rather unique that way. Most of us were raised to be pleasers, and that also means sacrificing our own needs or comfort to make others more comfortable.
Many women going through chemo have shared that they worry that their baldness will make others scared, anxious, or offended. Some of my fellow cancer patients have told me they don’t go bald because they worry that their kids’ play dates might get scared or their parents might be offended.
The explanation to a child is simple: Chemotherapy is a kind of medicine that gets rid of the cancer and makes sure it doesn’t come back, but unfortunately it makes my hair fall out. After the medicine is finished my hair will grow back.
As I walk around the world as bald as a Ping-Pong ball, I haven’t come across any offended reactions. Perhaps my ease with it creates comfort in them. Maybe people are a little softer, kinder and smile a little longer at me, but by no means do they react negatively.
By no means am I saying that going bald is a must or that it is for everyone. I, too, sometimes don a cute hat or a fabulous wig, even longer and blonder than my real hair. (I also have a brunette and auburn wig for when I want to live as an alter ego for a night)
I know that my baldness is temporary and my hair will grow back and that may not be true for 2 percent of Americans with alopecia or the 40 percent of women over 40 with noticeably thinning hair. (I will address treatments in a later column.)
I’m only proposing that cancer is a badge of honor, not of shame. It’s a struggle, but also a gift if you let it be. And as for the baldness? Remember that we are so much more than our appearance, and our value goes far beyond what people see on the outside every day.
So celebrate that inner bald chick! And get to know her a little bit. We all have one.
Dr. Berman is the star of “In The Bedroom with Dr. Laura Berman” on OWN and director of drlauraberman.com.