My longtime hairstylist Lee took her scissors and went to work separating my tightly bound ponytail from the rest of my head. It was thicker than I thought.
All of a sudden, more than 9 inches of my hair was in my hands.
“You spend a lot time growing it, and then it’s gone,” said Lee, as if reading my mind.
I felt slightly liberated, as my hair had become tiresome to maintain.
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But the moment also felt bittersweet. I had been growing my hair for four-plus years with the intent of donating it to Pantene Beautiful Lengths. It will be matched with other ponytails to create free wigs for women with cancer.
In the process of letting my typically short bob grow the longest it had ever been – I needed at least 8 inches to donate – the act of growing it out had somehow become part of my identity.
More than just strands of hair, it was a daily reminder of my younger sister, Rachel, who died March 28, 2012, of cervical cancer. Not that I’ve needed a daily reminder. She’s regularly on my mind, from her recent birthday, when she would have turned 36, to the opinions I know she’d have about the breakup of Brangelina.
They say not to do anything drastic or make any major life changes while you’re grieving. But I had to do something dramatic when she died just over a year after being diagnosed with an especially aggressive form of cancer. My life – my identity of being Rachel’s big sister – was permanently altered. Nothing felt normal.
They say not to do anything drastic or make any major life changes while you’re grieving. But I had to do something dramatic when she died just over a year after being diagnosed with an especially aggressive form of cancer.
Helping someone with cancer seemed like a tiny thing I could do. When Rachel eventually lost her thick wavy hair after undergoing treatment, wearing a wig was just one thing that helped her maintain a semblance of normalcy.
A shocking diagnosis
Rachel was my only sibling and my best friend. Though separated by five years, we often heard comments about how we looked like twins.
She was just 30 years old when she was diagnosed. We were stunned. She kept her annual exams like clockwork. She even had the Gardasil vaccine, which prevents some strands of human papillomavirus, or HPV, that are responsible for cervical and vaginal cancers, among others.
We learned that Rachel’s case was unusual, and everything that could go wrong seemed to do so. Despite being healthy and diligent, she had the type of cancer that resisted the HPV vaccine.
Still, when our worlds were shaken in early 2011, doctors told us that it could be cured because it was in the early stages.
When you’re first diagnosed with cancer, you think your hair is immediately going to fall out. Fortunately, Rachel’s initial treatment plan meant she wouldn’t lose her hair.
She knew she was lucky. She wouldn’t look sick to the small circle of people who knew what she was going through, and almost as important, those who didn’t.
She would quietly undergo a combination of radiation and chemotherapy that boosted the effects of the radiation. She might get tired, but she would be cured and could go on with her life, which was going quite well with her new husband, Ben, wonderful friends, and a job she loved.
She finished her treatment in the summer, and we anxiously waited for the tests that could confirm that the cancer was gone. That wouldn’t happen for a few months, but Rachel had a feeling something was wrong. She urged doctors to take a closer look. She was right, and even the doctors were surprised that the cancer had spread. A much stronger treatment would be needed.
This time, her hair would go.
We didn’t know that would be the least of our concerns.
Searching for normal
I was charged with researching wigs. Like reporting a story, it was a crash course in learning something new. Did she want human hair versus synthetic? Would insurance cover any of it?
We found a wig shop near our home in suburban Maryland. It was just like a hair salon, only there were Styrofoam heads all over with wigs on them. There were modern wigs, and those that would make her look like a grandmother. Next to chairs with people getting their hair styled were stations with only a wig being styled.
The extraordinarily nice women who worked there specialized in clients with medical issues. They asked if she wanted to experiment with her look.
This was not the time to do that, though Rachel used to complain about her hair, which was the opposite texture of my smooth straight hair. She required all kinds of products to keep it frizz-free.
For my sister, losing her hair was a big deal, not because of vanity, but because it made her feel ill when she was doing her best to project healthy.
Her husband, a close friend and I brought her wigs, helping her narrow down the choices to something close to her original look.
While Rachel normally was decisive, the process became too much. We went to a nearby pizza place to discuss her options. She ultimately decided on one that matched her hair color and framed her face. She deemed it “pretty legit.”
“I want to address something HEAD on,” was the title of a blog post she wrote to her friends, coworkers and family in October 2011. Rachel’s blog was called “Seriously?” and she chronicled her illness, from updates on her treatment plan to a lengthy post on new federal guidelines for cervical cancer screening. Rachel, with a master’s degree in public policy, was not pleased with the recommendation.
Writing about her hair was one time she expressed a bit of her signature wit in an otherwise miserable time. She knew people might wonder if she had lost her hair with her new treatment regimen, but were “politely not asking.”
She described it as “traumatic.” First she lost strands of hair two weeks after her first chemo session. Then it became clumps. She returned to the wig shop, where her new wig was waiting for her. The women at the shop gave her a buzz cut, and she started wearing it.
For Rachel, losing her hair was a big deal, not because of vanity, but because it made her feel ill when she was doing her best to project healthy.
“I understand that I have to do anything possible to get better, and this is just another sacrifice I am making for my overall good,” she wrote. “I also know it will grow back one of these days. But it does feel like the loss is just adding insult to injury. I mean, seriously, haven’t I already been going through enough?”
In one year, she went through countless tests, procedures and trips to the hospital. She lost her ability to get pregnant. At the age of 30, then 31, she faced death.
“Clearly, I have been poked and prodded, bruised and scarred,” she wrote on the one-year anniversary of her diagnosis in February 2012. “One year ago, and even eight months ago, I cared about these scars. Now, I could care less about my hair loss or scars – I just want to live.”
A month later, she died with Ben by her side.
A fresh start
Since then, I have moved to Raleigh and gotten a new job, making new friends. None of them knew about Rachel or the grueling time I went through during her illness. They didn’t know my hair had been in a short bob since high school, unless they flipped through my Facebook photos. They didn’t know I felt like a different person than I did just a few years ago.
My longtime friends supported my plan to donate my hair, complimenting my longer style. I often wondered what Rachel would have thought of it, especially when my longer hair revealed waves like hers.
I delayed getting my longer hair cut. I wondered if subconsciously I wanted to keep that daily reminder of my sister with me, the same reason I haven’t parted with some of her possessions.
This summer, I knew it was time to finish my plan. It’s hard to explain, but I felt like my longer, style-less hair was an inaccurate reflection of how I now perceived myself. Yet I delayed making the final cut. I wondered if subconsciously I wanted to keep that daily reminder of Rachel with me, the same reason I haven’t parted with some of her possessions.
In late August, I returned to Lee Skinner, the same Fayetteville hairstylist I’ve been with for more than a decade. She never met Rachel, but she knew all about her. In Lee’s chair, I had shared good news with her, like when I was Rachel’s maid of honor.
She also heard my bad news. In 2012, it was several months after Rachel’s death before I got my hair trimmed again. When I showed up at the salon, ready to share my hair-donating plan, she quietly glanced at me as she finished with a client before greeting me. She didn’t have to ask why it had been so long. She knew.
When I sat in Lee’s chair this summer, this time felt like a new beginning. We measured the hair again, as I had done repeatedly. I showed her photos of celebrities whose hairstyles I’d been coveting. Then she began the cut.
“I know it was hard for you,” Lee told me. She paused. “Your sister was proud of you.”