I don’t know how to be this version of me. I am not sick. Well, I have cancer but I don’t feel it. The medications I take to fight the cancer make me look sick and act sick, but that isn’t me. That is the side effect you see as a result of an incredible fight. I hate feeling sick, but I love Drag Queens. I always have but, recent life events have caused me to develop a whole new appreciation for these brave divas.
I admire Drag Queens not only for their incredible artistic and creative skills as well as their performance and humor. But also because, they know how to transform and be comfortable with the version of themselves everyone else sees. They do it with such style and larger than life personality, one can’t help but love them. Queens are masters of not being themselves while being themselves for all the world to see. They are the absolute pinnacle of positive self-image, mental fierceness, and sheer-fire determination, all wrapped up in a beautiful sarcastic ball of off-beat humor.
I could handle shaving my head. I actually kind of liked it because I was taking ownership of my experience. In the final stage when it was all shaved evenly, it was baby-chick soft, fuzzy, and fierce. People wanted to see and touch it and I felt strong and empowered. Cancer had taken total control of my life, but it wasn’t going to get my hair. That happened on my terms. I don’t mind having a shaved head. I do however, mind looking like a chemo patient.
What to expect when you’re not expecting cancer, tip number #315: Shaving your head and losing your hair are two entirely different things. The first time I saw myself in the mirror, I had stumbled into my bathroom after just waking up, looked and the mirror I literally thought to myself, “You look like a fucking chemo patient,” and then I remembered, “Oh wait, I am a chemo patient.” Having your hair fall out from chemotherapy is truly an awful experience.
Early on I bought into the fact that this was going to happen to me. It was a difficult thing to do because the number one response I tended to get when I would tell people was, “It doesn’t happen to everyone maybe you’ll get lucky,” typically followed by a story of someone they knew that it didn’t happen to. I realize this was only intended to be comforting. It’s a way of suggesting that maybe it won’t be that bad and saying, “I love you and I’m sorry this is happening to you.” But suggesting false hope isn’t particularly comforting. I knew for me, this was without a doubt, inevitable.
The beauty of science is that it’s predictable. If you ever find yourself with cancer, just know that whether your hair falls out or not is largely dependent on the medications you take. Cancer is more like snowflakes, although there is a bit of a predictable pattern, no two treatments are exactly alike as there are way too many variables. Not all cancer patients take the same medication or receive the same treatment. Not all chemotherapy is the same. It’s actually a highly customized and individualized process. For me, I’m taking four different medications, two are targeted therapy (intended to cut off the cancer’s food supply) and two are chemotherapy intended to attack rapidly growing cells. One of the many side effects of these drugs, is hair loss. Medically speaking, without question, I knew that mine was going to come out. It was only a question of how.
The nurses and doctors did a good job of preparing me for it. I cut it in stages, prepared my kids and talked them through the transition. I was ready. My good friend signed on to help and we did it with laughter and tears and hugs and humor. It’s was fun, all things considered. It was empowering, I owned it. I was okay with shaving my head. But then I started to lose my hair, this is something entirely different. I stepped in the shower one day and looked down. My hands and arms were covered in the tiny hairs. I leaned under the water to rinse it off, but the more I rinsed, the more it kept coming. I was covered in tiny, itchy small hairs all over my body. The drain was piling up with what used to be on my head. I stepped out of the shower and saw myself in the fogged up mirror. I wiped away a section and looked at what had once been my thick luscious, baby-chick soft head.
The person looking back at me, was not the one that had entered the shower just a few minutes earlier. I ran my had over what was left of my hair. It was thin, patchy, and sickly looking. I had gone from fierce girl with a shaved head to sick girl with cancer almost instantly. I thought, at this would be relatively fast and simple process. I couldn’t possibly have that much hair. I thought I would go to bed with a shaved head one night wake up, take a shower, and be bald. Hair today, gone tomorrow. But, cancer is an asshole. I was wrong, of course it’s not that simple.
In all my mental and physical preparations the part I didn’t think about and wasn’t prepared for was the space between. The part where some of the hair falls out, but not all of it and it takes days, or even weeks. The part where you can’t just shave it off completely (due to the risk of infection) and you have to walk around looking sickly with mange. The space between where you have to cover your head because you are scary to look at. The part where hair everywhere on your body comes out in patches. The part where you lose your eyebrows and eyelashes and no longer look human. The part where you watch it falling out for days all over your desk at work or on the clothing of someone you’ve just hugged. I can be strong, I can take a perfectly shaved head. I think I could take a bald head and walk around proudly sporting my glow. What I’m struggling with is the space between. I’m struggling with how to own this other sickly looking, acting, version of myself.
Sickly is someone I don’t know. I don’t want to lose my eyelashes and eyebrows. I’m not sure how to fake those and make them look right. I’ve never don’t it before. I don’t want to itch and be uncomfortable covered in little tiny hairs. I don’t know how to wear a wig that doesn’t look like me, and be a fierce other version of me. Not to mention the logistics, how does one even wear a wig? I’ve always had so much hair I’ve only attempted it once or twice, never as a part of my lifestyle. I’m pretty good with makeup, but I’ve never contoured it to hide bloating or gray and blotchy skin. This is why chemo patients need drag queens. They know all the tips and all the tricks of highlights and how to nip, tuck, tape, and create. They know how to do this shit, they are masters.
I did go to a wig store, it was educational. As it turns out, there is such a thing as a strap-on mullet. It’s half headband, half hairband (literally). I have learned that wigs are largely bushy on top and difficult to fit a hat over. If you ever find yourself with cancer and want to wear a hat and still look like you have hair, you have to buy a strap-on mullet. I never knew this existed but my guess is, Drag Queens do. They know all about this stuff and more importantly they know all about owning it. They know about feeling beautiful from the inside out no matter how you look, and projecting a fierceness often in the face of great adversity.
There are women, battling cancers, bravely walking among us and sporting strap-on mullets. I love them. I admire them. Drag Queens go further than traditional actors playing a part, Queens are the part. They have mastered the alternative version of themselves and they are bold, sassy, funny, and beautiful. They transform into someone new, a diva. So should chemotherapy patients. I want to be a chemo diva. It’s not about vanity it’s more about not wanting cancer to own me. Some of the fiercest ladies I know are putting on a show, not so much for your entertainment but because they have no other choice. They are simply trying to own and alternative version of themselves. Finding out you have cancer really is a little like being lifted up in a tornado and getting dropped somewhere in a foreign land far away. Drag Queens have already paved this yellow brick road. I think they should adopt chemotherapy patients and show them how it works in the Merry Old Land of Oz.
Cancer, Chemo, and Queens, Oh my!