Metastatic Breast Cancer

The Bald and the Beautiful

October 10, 2016

(Leslie A. Wood)

August 2012

Upon learning that I was 100 percent going to lose my hair after I had chemotherapy for breast cancer, I tried a basic Google search for wigs, with dismal results. I found a lot of unfashionable websites — Comic Sans font on cream-colored backgrounds, tribal-print borders, and cartoonish clip art. I wanted Nordstrom and had somehow stumbled into Walmart circa 1997. They didn’t even have photos of the wigs.

When Googling failed, I spent hours talking to my mom’s friends who had gone through chemotherapy, and then reading the yelp reviews for the "chemotherapy wig" places they recommended. The markups seemed atrocious and exploitative — these wigs started at a cool $3,000. Shouldn’t wigs for people going through cancer be cheaper? The stores didn’t list anything beyond their prices online. Exorbitant, buy-a-car-for-this prices. Phone calls resulted in aggressive pitches to schedule paid consultations (a "deposit" toward a purchase to discourage unserious buyers).

My surgeon told me about a woman in Oregon who would cut off my natural hair and make it into a wig. But I didn’t just want to re-create the limp, awkwardly wavy hair I was losing; I was going to use this as an opportunity to improve my appearance. I was going to get something better than the hair I currently wore on my head. My new wig would be amazing. Longer, thicker, straighter — this would be an opportunity to have the Liv Tyler hair I’d always dreamed of.

I was going to get something better than the hair I currently wore on my head.

I eventually connected via email with a woman who would make me a custom wig. I drove two hours to visit her in a distant suburb to get measured. Her website had a whole (lilac-colored) page dedicated to chemotherapy hair loss, even featuring before-and-after pictures. We exchanged emails that were pages long as we discussed my options for the wig, finally settling on glossy, straight, black natural hair from India, with a whisper-thin cap that would make up in breathability what it would lack in durability.

I remember agonizing over the decision of paying extra for a longer-than-standard wig, because the standard length looked insufficiently luscious on my five-foot-ten frame. I wanted something that would drape protectively over my offending breast, a magical coat of hair to protect me from a body spiraling out of my control.

My wig would end up being the single most expensive wearable thing I’ve ever purchased, more expensive than even my wedding dress. I would get to wear it for only two weeks.

July 2012

Lying in bed on my 29th birthday, I reached across my body and felt a gigantic lump in my right breast. It was the size of a stomped-on tangerine, and it had definitely not been there three months earlier when I went in for my annual pap. I knew right away it was something.

A week later, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

My first and secret thought, sitting with my mom and my boyfriend in the doctor’s office, was a paralyzing fear of losing my long hair. I flashed back, like I was in a movie. I saw my boyfriend wrapping a tendril of my long hair around his finger and saying, "I love your long hair, promise me you’ll never cut it." I blamed him a little for that, as if he had somehow jinxed me.

September 2012

I began treatment in September, with what my nurses called "the worst of all the chemos." In addition to rendering me violently nauseous, my hair would fall out, grow back again in between treatments, then those hairs would fall out again. I developed antibiotic-resistant staph infection in my hair follicles, caused by a perfect storm of pressure from the wig, the trauma of losing my hair over and over again, and an acute case of steroid acne. The infection left hideous red scars on my tender skin. Forget the scratchy wig; I couldn’t even wear a hat. Just touching my head dislodged speckles of dead hair. I wept, curled up in a ball with my scalp covered in ice packs to alleviate the burning from the awful pustules.

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