Getting diagnosed with breast cancer at 29 felt like being placed on an assembly belt where you are reverse engineered. Every conversation, every appointment, every decision, felt like I was moving at the speed of light toward darkness. Toward a person I didn’t know existed, and I never thought I would have to meet.
I walked into this journey not knowing a single survivor, or what to expect. I didn’t know what a PET scan was. I didn’t know how to pick and choose which body parts to keep. And I didn’t know that chemo would reconfigure by entire sense of self. But one thing I understood for as long as I could remember, was that there is an unofficial universal symbol of cancer – the inimitable bald head.
Within one month of receiving my diagnosis, I was confronting my first of six rounds of chemotherapy. I made the decision to receive all my medical treatment in New York City where my family is, even though I was living and working full time in Washington, D.C. I figured, as long as I could keep growing professionally and keep up travel, I could maintain a common thread between the present and what was quickly becoming my “old life,” and thus, a continuous identity. So I began to view the train rides to N.Y.C. every three weeks as scenic reprieves, and the trips home as weekends with family, plus treatment.
By doing this, I had unknowingly attached critical parts of my identity – my confidence, vitality, and courage – to my ability to maintain any aspect of my pre-diagnosis life. And for some time, it even worked, because no matter how rough that first month was, I was able to look in the mirror and be reassured by recognizing the woman looking back at me. And despite having cancer in my body, I still looked and felt healthy. That is, until my hair loss.
My oncologist had reminded me in passing that I should purchase a wig because soon my hair would fall out. But no one had prepared me for the disarming process which is hair loss. Physically, my hair loss symptoms ranged from headaches, to bruising and numbness. But the handfuls of hair in my bathroom sink, the inability to lay my head on my pillow, the drastic thinning of my dark curly locks, were allegorical of the power struggle taking place within my body. Hair loss confirmed for me that what was on the inside had made its way to the outside. It was the cancer’s affirmation over my body.
Having spent my life learning to love my hair for the untamed wilderness that it was, to have it slowly taken away from me felt like too big of an emotional burden to bear. While I was keeping my diagnosis private to allow for time and space to cope, it became difficult to function under the cloak of normalcy with evanescent tresses.
So in my nascent decision as a cancer patient, I determined that having control over my identity didn’t mean keeping cancer out, it meant moving forward into the days to come with acceptance and courage. I would gain fortitude by making the decision of how to let my hair go, rather than by trying to hang on to it.
I booked a trip to New York between my first and second rounds of chemo. On a perfect summer Sunday I spent the morning in Brooklyn at what would be my last fashion shoot as my “old self,” since I had made the commitment to attend weeks ago. I contoured my hairline and shaded in with makeup the balding spots to make myself camera ready. I gave myself the gift of one last ordinary, carefree morning, as I posed with other young women who on the surface too, seemed to be having a normal day.
After the shoot, I hailed a cab to midtown Manhattan and met my family at the HairPlace NYC, where I had a standing head shaving appointment. I sat in the chair for what I thought was a quick and procedural appointment and was instead handled with great sensitivity and respect.
My hair was dismantled in pieces. When the ponytail was chopped off, we counted down, like we were all taking that first big plunge on a rollercoaster together. Each cut after that got easier, until my scalp was liberated from the pain and discomfort of hair loss voodoo. Then, in one of the greatest acts of humanity I’d experienced until that moment, the hair stylist asked if she could shampoo my bald head.
When I looked in the mirror for the first time, I understood how immensely powerful it is that we are tied together through the image of a bald head. For the first time in this journey, I made a decision that took back my control over how I would face cancer. I feared hair loss would take away from my identity, but it merely reaffirmed the qualities within me that would help me fight. Then my mother said God had turned me back into a baby, with no hair, so my parents could give me nurturing in my adulthood.
When I stepped off the train later that evening in D.C., I had left behind my hair and an antiquated identity in New York. Blonde bob cut wig in hand, I was determined to go forward prioritizing my self-love with a “glammed if I do, glammed if I don’t” attitude. But what lay ahead of me was feeling pure exhaustion 24/7, looking frail and sick, and commuting to the office with my scratchy, hot wig in a Ziploc bag due to the summer heat.
Looking like a shell of a person with a disposable hair do, I found my wig to be distorting my self-perception again. It made me feel like I was telling everyone but me “Hey, I look alright, so everything will be alright.” Still riding the high from my bold head shaving appointment, I wanted to find a way to walk into the world everyday dealing with my hair loss more authentically. When I tried to search for head wraps on the internet, all the pieces I found made me look boring or like a sick person. If I wouldn’t wear these styles before cancer, I certainly wasn’t going to wear them now!
From then on, each trip to the infusion center ended with a visit to the Mom-and-Pop fabric store down the street. Just as the many experiences at the start of this journey made me feel like I was being taken apart piece by piece, each fabric I picked up and styled to my head made me feel like I was being put back together shiny and new. The styles in my wardrobe brought confidence and personality back into my life, and helped me live more vibrantly and comfortably. From work press conferences, to walks in the park, I felt like I was showing up as me, finally.
When chemo ended in August 2018, I knew I wanted fashion, hair loss, and helping others to define my survivorship. My personal designs ended up inspiring what is today StyleEsteem Wardrobe, a place where women can discover head wrap styles for every season and occasion.
Baldness became the incubation period for my post-cancer self. Make no mistake, baldness is not a byproduct of cancer, it is a process by which you are planted like a seed and grown through your self-love.
By the time my hair grew to an even buzz in December, I rang in my 30th birthday, wearing out my natural hair for the first time. Although I felt I had gotten the birthday gift of life, I reminded myself just because my hair is growing back beautiful and healthy doesn’t mean the journey is over.
These days it is hard not to watch my hair with a doe-eyed eagerness to see it grow and flourish.
Just because my head is bald or my hair is short, doesn’t mean cancer is calling the shots on my life. Just because you see me with long hair doesn’t mean that I have completed my journey, or that I have accepted all of its changes. Hair is not a measure of how far I have come or how long I have ahead of me. But I am wary because just as my hair was a false crutch to my identity in the past, I don’t want it to become the same for my healing. It is simply an expression of one aspect of my beautiful life.
Written by Sonya Keshwani, founder of StyleEsteem and breast cancer survivor. Published in Wildfire Magazine, Identity & Aftermath 2020 Issue.