As a breast cancer survivor, I can’t help but notice that today’s media portrays women as hair, breasts, and high heels. When two-thirds of this equation is removed, we can lose our balance, and it’s a long way to fall off those four-inch heels.
We know there’s more to our self-identity, but I challenge you to observe movies, magazines, or advertising – and tell me we haven’t been influenced. While the feminist movement fought for brains-over-beauty, we bought fifty million Wonder-bras. Hey, that’s OK – I’m just whining because the closest I ever came to a Wonder-bra was wondering why my gene pool didn't provide the assets to qualify for one. Damaged damsels like me find clothes shopping more challenging than chemo – everything on the rack is too revealing.
This comes to mind because of a phone call from a distraught husband whose wife learned she had breast cancer and needed a mastectomy. Being an independent and private lady, she said she was going on a business trip, then flew to another state for the procedure and only informed him of the diagnosis after she returned home.
Over the next few days, I gently scraped him off the floor in little pieces, guiding him through the radical phases his wife was experiencing. Of course, if he sacrificed a personal part of his body to cancer, he certainly could identify with her emotional trauma – and she would certainly still love and cherish him, feeling wounded if he chose her methods. This is the stuff analysts love to chew on, but we won’t go where we don’t belong. He demonstrated his affection and sensitivity, but was rebuffed at every turn. I suggested his role might be like that lonely, isolated air strip waiting for the war-torn pilot to come in for a landing – but it’s important to maintain communication so she knows he’s there when she needs him. I reminded him the “two-thirds equation” had changed the rules; she must now re-invent herself and may still be evolving years from now. Chemotherapy was scheduled, and our flustered/flabbergasted husband tried to grasp the notion that his wife ordered a ($3000) wig made from her own hair. “But she totally hates her hair”, he agonized.
I couldn’t help but ponder the perplexities of feminine tresses. A sweetly naive 8-year-old gets her first glimpse of how frustrating hair can be. At 10 years we wonder how a truly conscientious creator failed to give us hair like our best friend. By 13, we're pretty certain there is no God, and obviously condemned to suffer – ugly and alone – for eternity. By the age of 15, our mangled mane has been every color of the rainbow – not exactly acceptable hair colors – and the world has confirmed the cruel inequities of life. College years are a blur, documented by photos of fleeting hair fashions.
Adulthood arrives with career and family – due largely to our perpetual diligence at hair care. We’ve cursed, coaxed, and cajoled our plumage into every conceivable contrivance, but it came with a price tag – collectively we blew through $20 billion annually in the quest for lovely locks.
Now comes cancer, and the hair we’ve hated since we were 8 years old is finally leaving. We’re rid of it, Baby – it’s gone! For the first time we have real choices for fabulous hair, with a carte blanc excuse to be damsel-du-jour. So what happens? We have our own hair (which we’ve loathed for a lifetime and spent the national debt trying to correct) made into a wig. No wonder the guys are confused; in fact, I’m a little confused.
At times like this I sit down for a chunk of chocolate. Trite, insensitive trivia? Au contraire! There is a method to my madness – it’s not just a puddle of gooey, brown gunk (stuffed with nuts and caramel). It’s an opportunity to slow down and think clearly, while the life-affirming concoction induces lucidity and power-thinking. Maybe your senses revel in rutabaga cheesecake slathered with sauerkraut. (Sounds like a balanced diet to me; I saw a friend wolfing it down – it’s the only thing she could taste.)
When faced with a life crisis, every choice we make has consequences; sometimes we need to sit down and really consider all of the consequences – and beware the emotional chaos. I explained to this husband how the smallest measure of normalcy is crucial, even if it’s the normalcy we love to loathe. Whatever makes her feel whole and normal during this fragile period will ultimately benefit them both. Married couples must realize that cancer is not a me disease – it’s a we disease. The strongest structure in the universe is the triangle: Respect, love, and patience create an indestructible equation, and is the glue that holds shattered lives together. Both individuals have new definitions of their role, and must be vigilant to keep every element of the triangle in place.
Fran Di Giacomo is an artist, and author of
I’d Rather Do Chemo Than Clean Out the Garage: Choosing Laughter Over Tears.