What kind of haircut should you get before starting chemo? It's one of those questions you probably won't find answered in a magazine or on a website, because it doesn't really matter—hair today, gone tomorrow. But throwing in the towel before I'd even begun treatment wasn't going to work for me. So a few weeks before I went for my first chemo session, I went straight to my hairstylist, Nunzio Saviano.
My hair, pre-Worst News Ever.
I showed up at his New York City salon after work on a chilly night in November and walked up the stairs to the second floor. The studio had huge windows with orchids lining them and a calm, peaceful vibe. Nunzio said hello and gave me a hug. "What are you thinking?" he asked.
I usually give him carte blanche. My hair is thick and curly and best left in the hands of someone who knows what to do with it, but I always have some sort of guideline: Keep it on the longer side, and, please, no bangs. But this time, my only direction was, "I'm starting chemo next week, so do whatever."
"What?" he asked, alarmed. He listened, nodding his head and looking at my hair, as I explained the situation to him: the tumors on my liver, the surgery, and the six rounds of chemo to come. He still had a job to do, though, so off to the shampoo station I went before he got to work with his scissors. Nunzio lopped off my wet hair, taking his time and creating layers with a straight razor. The style he landed on? A bob. "I put in these layers so that as it falls out, probably starting here," he explained, motioning around the crown of my head, "it won't be so noticeable." Great. But I was at least relieved the best course of action wasn't a buzz cut.
Nunzio sat me beneath a hood dryer, set on the lowest heat to simulate air-drying, and when he lifted it, I stared at my reflection. It was like sudden-onset narcissism. This was the most adorable bob I'd ever seen in my life. It didn't pouf up. The waves didn't dry in weird kinks. Instead, they were bouncy and uniform, the shape was flattering, and, best of all, the cut didn't require a single hot tool. This was air-dried perfection that I'd never before experienced, the undisputed Best Haircut of All Time.
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I was a woman obsessed. When I left, I met my boyfriend at the subway station nearby. He took a while to find me—because I didn't have my usual bath mat of curls—and his eyes lit up when he did. "Wow," he said. "Your hair looks so good." It did look good. And it felt good! Like most girls with curly hair, I grew up armed with ceramic-plated flatirons and defrizzing serums. So this, a gorgeous haircut that enhanced my natural texture and required no maintenance, was a moment worthy of celebration.
But it also felt like the universe was giving me the finger. I thought chopping off my hair would make the fallout easier to deal with, since waking up to find my pillow strewn with long curls seemed nightmarish. But I was so wrong. I loved my new haircut so much I wanted to keep it at all costs. So I tried not to touch it. I only washed it once a week. I stopped untangling knots. I experimented with sleeping facedown. If the Internet had told me to rub butter on it, I would have. It would've been worth it.
And So Began Chemo...
At Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in NYC, ready for my second round of chemotherapy.
I had only four glorious days with my bob before starting chemo. But even three weeks in, I still had the majority of my hair. (Although I spent hours inspecting my part in my bathroom mirror and was convinced it was growing wider. I even sent pictures to my little sister to confirm.) Then one terrible morning, it happened. A rat-sized chunk of my hair fell out in my hand during my weekly shampoo. I screamed for a while. I thought about jumping out of my window and then remembered my windows open only four inches, probably because of moments like this. Then I spent the rest of the day mourning the loss of both my dignity and my perfect haircut.
I don't know why it shocked me. I knew this moment would happen. And yet, somehow I had deluded myself into thinking that if I truly believed my hair wouldn't fall out, it wouldn't—which is why I failed to buy a wig in advance. So I went to work wearing a knit beanie and then later visited a wig store, where a woman shaved the little hair left on my head and sold me a lace-front wig. (Beyonce's is lace-front too, friends told me.) My long, straight, dark-haired wig made me uncomfortable, both physically (think tension headaches) and emotionally. I felt like a kid playing dress-up, a sick person disguised as the picture of health. But because I'd paid for it, I wore it religiously for a few weeks.
Then one afternoon at work, I finally had it. Who was I kidding? And what was the point? I tore the wig off my head and stuffed it into a drawer. It remained there long after I finished chemo, and instead I wore a gray cashmere cap my mom had bought me. Cozy and warm, it was exactly what I needed at that point. I wore it until I had enough hair to feel comfortable without it.
You might think that in the grand scheme of cancer and the requisite side effects of chemo—which, let me tell you, aren't pretty—hair seems like it should have been the least of my worries. I get that. But it's too easy for people (who often are not bald nor undergoing cancer treatment) to say, "Well, hair grows back." I know how hair works. Would you like to be bald for six months? Have you ever tried to grow your hair from scratch? Do you know how it feels to lay your smooth scalp on a cold pillow in the dead of winter?
All I wanted was hair. My hair, preferably chin-length. I dreamed about it three or four times a week. I'd wake up thinking I still had the Best Haircut of All Time and reach up to touch it, finding nothing there but bare skin. It's like the morning after a breakup: You feel fine, and then as your mind gets going, you remember something really horrible has happened. I also developed this weird, sad tic of moving my fingers in the air around my ears, as if I were tucking my hair behind them—like phantom hair syndrome.
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Five Months Later...
Eventually my hair began to grow back. I loved feeling it go from smooth to stubbly to fuzzy, and then finally, to soft. It happened quickly; one minute, I was cue-ball status, and the next, I had enough hair to warrant a cut.
Since then, I've returned to see Nunzio multiple times. My only request is that he keeps it a pixie. I'm not sure why I decided to keep it short. Maybe I wanted to give my self-esteem a break before submitting myself to growing(-out) pains. Maybe I just like going to get my hair cut, basking in the glory of having hair to cut at all. But in any case, I've had the pixie for a while now—a pixie I choose to have, instead of one bad luck has bestowed on me—and I no longer daydream about growing it out or restoring the Best Haircut of All Time.
There are so many things to love about my pixie: It's pretty and feminine, easy to maintain, and different from any other cut I've had. Plus, I'm not the same person I was before cancer, so why bother trying to look like I am? What I love most, though, is how well it suits what I feel inside. It lends me this tough, don't-mess-with-me vibe that my cute curls just didn't match, like a subtle acknowledgement of what I've been through. It's OK that it isn't the Best Haircut of All Time. It's the Best Haircut of Right Now. And you know what? I'm at peace with that.
Me today, with my brother's dog, Ellie.
Deanna Pai is a writer living in Manhattan. She was diagnosed with hepatoblastoma, a rare form of liver cancer, at the age of 23. When she's not complaining about her cells, you can find her reading, running, and not moving to the West Coast. Follow her on Twitter @deannapai.
Photos: Courtesy of Deanna Pai
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