43: What’s the Worst that Can Happen?

43: What’s the Worst that Can Happen?

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Positive

What’s the Worst that Can Happen?

Only a few things are really important.

~Marie Dressler

“When did you lose your hair?” The question came from a woman sitting next to me in the oncology waiting room. Her husband was by her side.

The summer heat had killed any remaining vanity I had and my head was covered not with the expensive wig I wore to work, but with a do-rag so pink it would make a biker cringe. I’d convinced myself in the mirror that morning I looked cute.

I was about halfway through my chemotherapy treatments and the process had become routine. I’d even started to enjoy my day of forced reading time while I waited for the doctor, waited for my tests, then waited for the chemo to do its work. Best thing about cancer ever — you have a lot of time to read while you’re waiting on the medical staff to save your life.

It wasn’t the first time I had been asked that particular question. I was asked by co-workers, church members and even complete strangers while I shopped at Walmart. I even had a woman stop me one night while I was walking the dogs, wanting to share her daughter’s struggles.

I could tell the woman next to me was just starting her journey. She had yet to travel through the maze of treatment that follows the diagnosis of breast cancer. For me it was surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. And I had viewed the treatment as a checklist. Mammogram — check. Biopsy — check. Surgery — check. Now chemotherapy.

My first visit to the oncologist changed my checklist view of my condition. I’d been sitting in this same chair that day, worrying about my hair. Looking at the magazines, seeing the ads for hats, head rags and wigs, my eyes filled with tears.

I had cancer and I was going to lose my hair.

I was in a strange town after living all of my life no more than thirty miles from the town where I was born. The only constant in my life was my boyfriend of seven years with whom I had packed up my life and moved 1600 miles to live closer to his folks. We were supposed to be here to take care of them. And I got cancer. It wasn’t fair.

The pity party continued.

I returned to her question. When had I lost my hair?

At my second chemotherapy treatment, I’d been sitting watching the nurse hook up my newly placed port with the pre-medications that were supposed to keep me from rejecting the harder drugs to come. “You still have your hair,” the nurse commented. She even pushed a wayward curl out of my eyes.

“I’m hoping it will stay,” I confessed. My hair was long and curly. Finally after years of trying to mold the crazy curls into a straight style, I’d surrendered and I loved the way it looked. I’d bought a wig (check) but I still hoped I’d be one of the lucky ones who kept her hair during chemo.

The lady across from me in the eight-bed treatment pod laughed, overhearing our conversation. “It won’t stay. I’ve lost all of my hair everywhere except a line down the front of both of my legs. So I still have to shave. It’s not fair.” She laughed again and returned to working on a photo album with her daughter.

The young man in the bed next to her chimed in on the hair subject. “One day I put shaving cream on my face and my beard just came off with the foam.” Most people he ran into just thought he had a new hairstyle. Another place where men have the advantage; they can rock the bald look.

They were right. My hair started falling out right after that treatment. At first, my hair shorted into a curly bob, like I’d gotten a haircut. The next Monday, I showed up at work in my wig and people didn’t recognize me.

Sitting in the oncologist’s office that first day, losing my hair had been the worst thing that could happen. I’d been devastated at the thought.

That changed when the doctor told me a lymph node had swollen up after the surgery and was a new concern, possibly be a sign the cancer had spread.

Stunned, I asked about the next steps. He told me about the additional tests that would define my treatment. And if the cancer had spread, what did we do then? The look on his face told me the rest of the story.

Luckily after more tests, the doctors agreed that the cancer was curable and I was back on schedule for the chemotherapy and radiation.

The woman in the waiting room was still waiting for an answer. I took a deep breath, pasted on the smile, and gave her the news she didn’t want to hear. “I lost it during chemotherapy but I was able to fight the cancer off, so it was a small price to pay.”

I told her about my scare during my first appointment. I then went on to talk to her about my experiences and hoped that it helped her deal with the hardest part of cancer, not knowing the future or what to expect. I hope she understood that the loss of hair was temporary. I hope I helped her spirit deal with the fight she was about to undertake.

As I watched the woman and her husband leave with the nurse, I hoped she found a way to embrace the journey. Now, with my hair back and my year of cancer and treatment just a memory, I’m glad that I was able to learn that losing my hair could be the least of my problems. Now each day is a gift. Bald or not.

~Lynn Cahoon

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