AskTari: Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

My friend Amanda recently wrote to me, and asked:

Looking back, do you remember yourself at the moment when you lost all your hair?  I know I will lose what little thin crop I have left.  And I am so uncertain about my ability to go ‘bare topped’ and/or scarfed-up or if a wig is necessary for certain times and places. Casual acquaintances will notice and I’ll have to explain.”

My first response came from a detached resolve to my post-chemo life and the aging process that’s accompanied by thinning hair. I felt guilty. I had forgotten the initial terror, upon feeling globs of hair come out with a gentle combing. Finally my sister said, “There is nothing there to style, Tari. Shave it!”

This is one of the first MASKS OF VANITY cancer removes. Just the week before, surgeries had reshaped my body with the loss of most of my right breast.

Becoming a cancer patient is synonymous with loss; not loss of life, because as a cancer survivor, you still have that. Rather, it’s the loss of body parts, a sense of wellbeing and wholeness, control of treatment side effects like hair loss, privacy, and ultimately, the loss of dignity.

I needed to reassure Amanda that the loss of her hair was temporary; an assault on her privacy and self-image for sure, but it was also a positive sign that the chemo was working. A hairless head would be a badge of courage, and would show she was winning the battle.

To some this “positive” spin might seem crass, but in my eyes, losing one’s hair to chemo is a good thing. It means the chemicals are killing fast-growing cells, like hair—and cancer. Of course, not all chemo has this side effect, but if or when it does, I say celebrate.

Ah, the significant insignificance of a bad hair day! I’ll be the first to admit I started doing yoga for all the wrong reasons: VANITY. Yoga creates long, lithe muscles; the appearance of a beautiful body. Cancer removed that mask. It removes lots of masks that we hold up in life.

As a yoga teacher now, I see my students struggle with this all the time. Some women worry about losing their jobs, and others fear their husbands will never touch them again. The stigma of image is horrible in this culture.

The hair-loss is temporary, and how we choose to respond to it can be the first step toward empowerment as a survivor. It’s an opportunity to face the world as you really are, and even try something new.

My goal as a yoga teacher to this special population is to return the control that is automatically lost with the words, “You have cancer.”. I show women through yoga, how their dignity is right there for the taking, and how they can live comfortably and love the body they have.

So much of the focus these days is on finding a cure for cancer. Important—of course! But it’s just as necessary to empower those dealing with it, and to empower the survivors. It’s making someone feel like a human being again, instead of just a “patient”, with all the sterility the word implies.

Early on as a survivor, I found that yoga gave me back the mind and body control I felt I lost when I became a cancer patient. It enabled me to regain mobility in my arms so I could support my body weight and function normally again.

During chemo treatments, I was amazed at the number of times I was given advice by family and friends to “take it easy”. In fact, it would make me angry that my new identity as a cancer patient came with a disability statement, however well intended. Most treatment options bring bad feelings and reduced energy, but nothing that should allow for life-on-the-couch to replace sensible exercise.

As a cancer survivor and yoga instructor, I am going to make the case that cancer is a “negotiable” disease, and not necessarily a death sentence that takes your life-giving-breath away. I am going to make the case that there are ways to be a “well cancer patient” and survivor, to reduce stress, promote healing, enhance quality of life during chemotherapy and to find feelings of wellbeing. My prescription is yoga. I make no claim that it is a cure for cancer, but simply a proven prescription and philosophy that provides benefits to everyone. Yoga can teach you how to strengthen the immune system and soften the worst effects of illness and treatments. It can also ground you, even while stripped of your masks and help you become more of who you truly are. And yes, it can help create an amazing body, no matter whose eyes are beholding it.