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Diagnosis, expected: braving the shave before my hair begins to fall

Tashmia muses on her relationship with her hair, as she braves the shave during chemotherapy treatment for stage 3 breast cancer.

26 Jan 2020

Illustration by Ragavee Balendran

You will – I am sorry to say – lose your hair.

Words that slid in among the medical terms, neoadjunctive chemotherapy, invasive ductal carcinoma, mastectomy, radiotherapy, you will – I am sorry to say – lose your hair, all tumbled into my head. The words pile up when receiving such news, the treatment plans, the number of people who spoke to me increasing, only adding to the voices already drowning out my own. Is there a close loved one who needs to be told? Ensure they are present for the next meeting, they and I will need to hear what is to come –  together.

There is a litany of biopsies and scans that roll into place after the initial diagnosis of stage 3 breast cancer. The process of my body becoming unrecognisable as my own took on a speed of an unknown unquantifiable nature. Some scientific theories say there are particles from space falling into our sphere on a regular basis. A fragment of rock, unrecognisable, never before seen, hurtling towards me gaining speed, heat, traction, its importance and effect growing as it draws into my sphere. Space matter, ions causing molecular level changes without my knowledge – without my consent. Speeding up the cell activity within my body, my body in overdrive due to a collision with star dust. 

All the while the medical team seeks to grapple with the prognosis. Intravenous radioactive fluid courses through my veins as I have full body MRIs to explore how far the disease spread. Punctures into various lumps and suspicious areas bruising my body as samples are drawn out to achieve the clearest diagnosis. There are phone calls, emails, letters and then more phone calls. The pieces of what is to happen to me fall into place. 

There are many forms of chemotherapy, the decision as to which one is used is based on the severity and form of cancer that is diagnosed. Epirubicin and Cyclophosphamide (EC) is the first form I have administered. A thin tube – a PICC line, is inserted into my arm and guided through a vein into my chest, this will remain through my treatment and is the point through which all my drugs will be administered. The dosage given determines the impact and side effects suffered. As my cancer cells rapidly divide and grow, the aim of the drug is to eradicate the cells that grow at an accelerated speed. In doing this, we cannot decipher the difference between the cancer cells and the other cells and molecules in our bodies that divide and grow rapidly, like hair follicles, our digestive tract and stomach lining. It is all stripped bare to target the disease trying to course through my body. 

“Decades prior, as a teen, as I left behind a traumatic and turbulent childhood, I had walked into a salon and asked for it all to be taken off”

Throughout this are the conversations outside of those with my medical team. With friends, my children, myself. In the cacophony of humming machines, buzzing phones and requests to take a deep breath, now, is the space where these exchanges happen. Where I tried to make space for what others felt on hearing my diagnosis, where I thought deeply in the darkest of places in the silence of my nights of my children and their future, where I tried to hear my own thoughts, my own reactions. 

I have CANCER. I whispered the words to myself.

I gently explained it to myself on other occasions, I have fucking cancer, I shouted to myself in the shower. Each time the words sounded hollow, the weight of their content seemingly of no bearing to me. As with all the procedures that were taking place there was a sense of other worldliness, seeing it all from afar, watching it happen to someone else who looked so much like myself. My breast would be removed, my hair, eyebrows and eyelashes would be lost, concern from all around me as they anticipated my reaction. Your hair, your beautiful hair! some exclaimed, I am so sorry, others quietly added, their eyes sweeping down my thick mane. 

I had not realised how so much of who I was or how I was viewed was determined by my hair. The unruly follicles I had battled with since having my youngest child, a defining feature of not only how I appeared but who people thought I was. For almost two decades I had worn it long, choppy like so much of the terrain I had covered, long was for me a routine, expected, my silent rebellion.

Decades prior, as a teen, as I left behind a traumatic and turbulent childhood, I had walked into a salon and asked for it all to be taken off. All the stylists had been nervous, some very reluctant, the acceptor of the challenge giddy with having to take off so much hair in one swoop. I walked out of that room without the weight of so many expectations on me, the generations before me. The good girl, the dutiful daughter, the hard working student, the young woman meant to slot into her space in the Muslim community. 

I had performed an act to shed all those burdens. Without my hair I did not have to consider purdah, whether I had to cover it from the eyes of men. Walking along the city at night or dawn break, I did not have to fear djinn grasping onto it, joining me for a possessive ride. Since I had no plans to make a good husband happy, I did not need my hair beautifully draped in flowers or jewels. 

Years later it did feel like a rebellion to let my hair grow, to walk into a room without signalling the battles I had fought. My appearance responsible and unruffled to many still causing discomfort, lit up in lights as someone who failed to perform her duties, who may have befallen the evil eye, who was a single mother, who had refused to follow the opinion of others of what it takes to be a decent human being.

“Two days post chemo I sat in my kitchen with a dear friend and my children, the tracks from Beyonce’s Lemonade soaring anthemic as we shaved my hair off”

As my first chemotherapy was administered, me surprising the nurses as I refused to use the cold cap to try to save my hair, I found the voices from all the weeks gone by battling to be the loudest. Hours later as the leaden weight of the drugs started to slow down my limbs, body sore and bruised from procedures, my mind raw with nightmares clamouring to be the priority worry, I recognised the place I was inhabiting. 

It was a familiar friend, the fear and pain that had followed me from childhood appearing through the years. I knew its corners, its nuances, its hum, so familiar in its vibrations. All the leaflets and meetings do not prepare you for the trauma that occurs, our burgeoning health system is not equipped for the impact on those of us who have experienced trauma in life before they get to their diagnosis. I did not experience a winding blow, a shock to my world, a shattering of the foundations, as this was a place I had known before. An old friend coming back to remind me it was not done with me yet. 

Two days post chemo I sat in my kitchen with a dear friend and my children, the tracks from Beyonce’s Lemonade soaring anthemic as we shaved my hair off before it would begin to fall. Life had circled back for me. As monumental a change it was for me or so many I know, it did not feel like a loss. The thought felt like an act of violence, a further torture, the act of trying to control something that could not be. Completely shedding my hair first was a reminder I did not need to allow further trauma. I could love myself. 

This part of Tashmia’s Diagnosis, Expected series.