Women spend endless amounts of time, energy and money on transforming their hair into glorious coifs and for many women it is a source of confidence and beauty. However, a growing number of women afflicted with cancer have found that same confidence and beauty by shaving it off.
When Deborah Koenig, a perky, blonde 40-year-old from Falls Church, was diagnosed with breast cancer, she knew the prognosis and the side effect of hair loss from the chemotherapy treatment. At first, she refused to believe it was true — it just wouldn’t happen to her.
“I tugged at it every morning, feeling I was winning against the Chemo,” Koenig says. “Finally, the Chemo won.”
Strands of hair started appearing on her pillow, her clothes, almost everywhere. Just touching it produced a handful of strands that clung to her fingers.
She couldn’t stand the thought of losing her hair slowly over time. She hated being at the mercy of a treatment that would save her life while destroying her image. That's when she decided to take control.
“I asked my roommate to shave my head,” Koenig says.
There she sat in the bathroom feeling like a new army recruit, preparing for battle.
“I thought this really isn’t a big deal,” Koenig says. “She gave me a crazy Mohawk before shaving it all off and it made us laugh. The importance of laughter in fighting this disease can not be undervalued, it helps me feel in control,” says Koenig.
Helga Samuels, another breast cancer patient living in Herndon, shared Koenig's experience. With a full head of long hair, she continued to wear it that way until confronted with destiny.
“One Sunday morning I woke up and I had only half my hair. I was horrified,” Samuels says.
She was frantic, but had made a deal in advance with her hairdresser. After a phone call, as promised, the stylist made a special house call. Rather than try to cover up the change, or salvage a style, Samuels' decision was clear — all her hair had to go.
“The hairdresser cut it off on the deck and we let it fly away with the wind,” says Samuels. As the breeze blew away the remnants of her hair she felt the power of choice. She made the decision to give her hair to the breeze, not the Chemo drugs.
With the empowerment of shaving their heads, women like Koenig and Samuels are faced with the reality of living with their new image. Their first reaction was to cover up. The women had all discussed the option of wigs and scarves with their doctors. It seemed like the normal progression.
“I ordered a cotton cap and a wig,” Koenig says. The wig, which cost $300 and was not covered by her insurance, ended up as a much-loved dog toy. Her dog seemed to mistake it for some sort of animal and loved running around the house with it dangling from its mouth. The pooch got much more enjoyment out of the wig then Koenig did herself.
“The wig was hot and itchy,” Koenig recalls. Feeling uncomfortable was not something she was going to endure to placate those around her. “It should be about you. It’s not about other people being comfortable. You’re the one with cancer and you should be comfortable.”
Noel Swearingen of Arlington, diagnosed with breast cancer in November of 2005, at first embraced the idea of covering up, taking a friend with her to pick out a wig to “make it more fun.” What she hadn't planned for was the gap in time between the day she cut off her hair and the wig shopping trip. In between, Swearingen's desire to attend a church service prodded her to due without the false “do” and go out bald. With her daughter at her side for moral support, she was pleasantly surprised by the reaction.
“I was accepted much better then I thought I would be,” says Swearingen. “The only question I was asked was by a friend. She just looked at me and said “Is there something I don’t know?'”
Using a wig or head scarf is not all about feeling self conscious, according to the women. In fact, a lot of the anxiety came from worrying about how other people would feel around them when they were out bald.
“I did think people would think I was a skin head or something,” says Koenig.
Although stranger’s opinions were a concern, the women worried most about their families.
“I was more anxious about how my family would feel, my son,” says Samuels. She didn’t want them to worry about her or feel awkward when they were out in the public together.
Koenig’s main concern was the reaction of her young niece, so she took a pro-active approach to the situation. “I took watercolor paint with me when I visited her so that she could paint my head,” says Koenig. “She painted it and loved doing it.”
As she drove home that night, with a painted Easter egg head, she noticed people staring at her. “I was thinking to myself as another motorist noticed me; this is only going to make me a stronger person.”
“To me, hair is not important,” says Samuels, noting that the decision to go bald is a very personal one. “It depends upon how each woman views beauty. As long as a person has a good expression on their face, you can go without hair and look great.”
It took time, but slowly, day by day, going bald became easier for these women. Eventually, Koenig went everywhere with only SPF 50 on her head.
“I wanted to show everyone that you could have cancer and not act or look sick. Even without hair you can still be beautiful,” says Koenig. Samuels even found a silver lining to the treatment.
“My hair is growing back now. I always had long hair, but you know, after this, I realized that short hair looks very good on me. It makes me look younger,” Samuels pauses a moment, almost looking in an imaginary mirror before she continues. “I think I am going to keep it short.”