Oh sure, it looked romantic and amazingly supportive when Samantha’s hunky boyfriend Smith Jerrod did it on Sex and the City, but shaving your head, or worse – simply plugging a photo of your mug into the #NoHairSelfie app that photo-shops a bald version of you – isn’t really showing support for cancer patients, in my opinion. Unless your spouse or dear friend or child has expressed consent in such a personal statement, you are running the risk of offending cancer patients and survivors, like this courageous woman who just recently lost her hair. I’m not speaking for all cancer patients and I do see some of the merits in actually shaving your head for a spouse, child or close friend, to make them feel less unique in their appearance or to encourage people to donate money. I just find a mass movement of strangers trying on baldness with an electronic app really minimizes the painful layers of what losing your hair via chemotherapy feels like, both physically and emotionally. It has rankled me from the first moment I heard of it. Why do I feel I’m entitled to even have an opinion on this movement and its impact on cancer patients and survivors?
Because I am one.
At the age of four, I had emergency surgery after a fall from a swing left me with overwhelming pain. The doctors assumed I had ruptured my spleen, but instead found a kidney busted open with a previously-undiagnosed cancerous tumour that had burst on impact after my fall. My kidney was destroyed and needed removal, and in the words of the doctor who finally told my parents why they had been waiting for hours – I was a very sick little girl. Subsequent radiation treatments and chemotherapy followed, to ensure stray cancer cells that were released when the tumour burst didn’t quietly take up residence elsewhere in my body. I don’t remember much about the radiation part (except the legacy of infertility it left me) but I have vivid memories of the chemotherapy; of how the drug would wind through the IV tube and as soon as it entered my body, I would begin vomiting and wouldn’t stop for most of the day. Chemotherapy isn’t just poison for the cancer, after all.
One of my most painful set of memories of this time revolve around the loss of my hair. In today’s medical advancements, some cancer patients are lucky enough to avoid complete hair loss, but back then, hardly anyone escaped it; even four year old little girls. My mom woke me one morning and found almost my entire head of hair over my pillowcase. It had happened overnight while I slept and I still recall her trying so valiantly to be brave for my benefit, yet failing and crying in front of me. Now that I have a young daughter of my own, I cannot fathom how my mom got through all of the treatments and crying (mine and hers) and needles and vomit and worry. She deserves a medal, for sure. Also at that time (1975) wigs were not much of widespread fashion statement and were in scarce supply. My parents had me fitted for an old-lady wig that resembled the hairstyle Maude sported, minus the style. Suffice to say, wearing a wig at that age was no easy task and led to other painful situations of kids teasing me and even threatening to take my wig from my head.
Eventually my hair grew back and life went on, but those childhood experiences changed me in innumerable ways. I still have very strong reactions to seeing children who are wearing scarves around their heads, and I can’t watch any movies or TV programs where children are terminally ill. So when I saw the campaign for #NoHairSelfie and some people on social media proudly posting photos of themselves smiling with their hair electronically removed by an app, or urging their readers and social media followers to “celebrate” World Cancer Day, my reaction was visceral; I cried, I raged inwardly, shouting at them that losing your hair is no reason to grin proudly, and cancer is definitely not anything to “celebrate”.
I get the intentions, I really do. I just don’t think much thought or sensitivity was put into this campaign with respect to how it might make some cancer patients and survivors feel. My overwhelming gut response is a desire to scream at the images of healthy people pretending to be bald “YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT IT’S LIKE.” And they don’t. An app can’t begin to give you the experience of feeling completely abnormal and a freak of nature when all of your hair suddenly leaves your body. It doesn’t provide the fun of having constant insecurities that everybody knows you’re wearing a wig or that your wig has shifted unnaturally or that it looks fake or doesn’t suit you. All those smiling faces being uploaded into the app? They look healthy and happy. People who have lost their hair to cancer are not healthy and rarely look so. Some may be fighting their damndest to hang on to some of life’s happiness, but rest assured they aren’t happy about losing their hair or having cancer.
Even people who are “brave” enough to actually shave their real heads still aren’t experiencing the full range of physical and emotional traumas that chemotherapy often reduces its victims to. I have far more respect for those who patiently grow out their hair and cut it off to donate for wigs for cancer patients and I am baffled that a prestigious establishment with powerful public engagement such as The Princess Margaret Hospital* wouldn’t see this as a much better campaign to invest their marketing efforts with. Wigs are expensive and real hair for them is not easy to come by, even if you want to donate your own. Hair has to be a specific length and cannot have dyes or chemical treatments in it.
While I understand the #NoHairSelfie has attracted some worthy attention and awareness for cancer patients with hair loss, I still feel that if you really want to help cancer patients, donate your money, time or supportive kindness. Volunteer, fundraise, or simply make some freezable meals for the cancer patient you know in your life. These are meaningful, helpful actions that have direct impact on those struggling with cancer or survivors who live in fear of relapse, unlike posting a picture of yourself and counting your “likes” using a hashtag originally meant for REAL cancer patients to reach out and support one another. Think about your actions, not just about jumping on the bandwagon because it sounds fun and all your social media friends are doing it.
It’s Word Cancer Day. My thoughts and prayers go out to all the brave fighters currently battling for their life and health, for all the survivors who have won, and for all those who tragically could not overcome this terrible disease.
*Please be assured that while I don’t agree with the campaign of baldness, I absolutely support The Princess Margaret Hospital in their efforts to support cancer patients. I was once a patient at the old hospital and have visited the new one, and I know the world-class establishment is full of hard-working and dedicated health professionals who strive to give the best physical and emotional care to every patient they treat.