When You Lose Your Identity
By Julia Whitfield
Soon after I heard the word “cancer,” I heard the word “chemotherapy.” Chemotherapy means a lot of things, but it nearly always involves hair loss—to the extent that a bald head is one of the most common characteristics of people with cancer.
A week after beginning chemo, my hair began to fall out. Rather than watching the pain in slow motion, I decided to get it shaved all at once, but couldn’t face the job myself. So I sat in my hairdresser’s chair, looking everywhere but in the mirror as the clippers buzzed back and forth over my scalp. Hair fell to the floor. Finally, Susan spun the chair around again, and unfastened the cape. She hugged me, and I flashed a glance in the mirror.
A stranger stared back at me.
Verses echoed in my mind.
“Your beauty should not come from outward adornment such as braided hair…”
“Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised…”
I didn’t want either fear or praise. I just wanted my hair and my old life back.
To my surprise—and embarrassment—I found hair loss one of the hardest things to deal with during cancer. Yes, in some ways it was harder than facing a mastectomy. I had mixed feelings about my breasts, but I had always like my hair. And as I explained to a friend, I could remember a time when I didn’t have to wear a bra, but I could not remember a time when I didn’t have hair. It was a basic part of my image and identity as a woman, and now it was gone.
Hair loss was full of surprises. It was January—how cold it was with no hair! How did men manage? When I lay down at night, the stubble on my scalp rasped against the pillow. When out and about, I noticed all the close shaven heads on men with a shock of recognition. That was what I looked like. To identify something in my looks with being male was disorienting.
After some trial and error, I found a wig, and wore it most of the time both at home and in public.
Truthfully, I struggled with my hair loss the entire time. It feels uncomfortable to admit that. I noticed the hair of everyone I met, and looked at hair commercials with envy. Of course I was thankful to have a good outcome from chemotherapy and surgery, and to fret about hair loss seemed petty and ungrateful. However, it was a fact. Losing my hair was associated with a loss of dignity, femininity, and control. It was a condensed symbol of everything that had gone wrong, and I couldn’t wait for it to grow back.
As my hair began to grow, I wondered if it would be curly. It certainly came in darker as fall approached, but I was thrilled to have noticeable hair. And what a milestone when there was enough hair to shampoo! Next, a pixie cut.
I had hair again. A happy ending…almost. Because the hair that came back was not the same as before. When I lost hair during chemo, I lost it from the top and sides of my head. And when it grew back, it was thick on the bottom, but thinner on the top and sides. I had always had thick, coarse hair that needed to be thinned out. Now, my hair was softer, finer, and receding at the sides.
There were certainly some positives about this change. I could wear sleeker hairstyles that wouldn’t have worked before, and eventually found one that I liked. It took much less time to blow dry and get ready in the morning. Highlights and a good cut boosted my confidence. Still, the hair changes nagged at me. Why?
As years went on, I continued to see my “new” hair as a constant reminder of cancer and the feelings of loss that were so intense. Every time I brushed my hair or bought volumizing shampoo, or learned a new styling trick to make it look fuller, a voice whispered, “It didn’t use to be like this.”
It took five months to write this article partly because I didn’t like these feelings, didn’t want to deal with them, and refused to acknowledge that they weren’t going away. Sitting down and writing this made me realize more fully that I was tired of living with these negative thought patterns. God had been my rock through the hardest places in my life.
Perhaps the problem was that I was ashamed of considering a “small” thing such a hard place, and I hadn’t invited God to help me with it. I began to pray for wisdom, clarity, and a way forward.
God graciously met me in this place. He brought to mind a story from the Old Testament that challenged me to re-frame my struggle and perspective. I was drawn to think about the idea of an Ebenezer.
In First Samuel 7, the Philistines assembled to attack the Israelites. Samuel offered sacrifices to the Lord, and the men of Israel fought and won against their enemy. Then, “Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying ‘Thus far the Lord has helped us (verse 12).’” Ebenezer means “stone of help.” Any time the Israelites passed by the stone, they were reminded of the way God helped and protected them in a time of trouble.
While placing a large stone in my daily path didn’t seem quite practical, the truth is that almost anything can be an “Ebenezer.” I decided that I would begin to choose to look at my hair in this light. When tempted to sigh over the thinner strands and loss of volume, I would try to consciously change my focus from hair to God’s mercy and steadfast help. After all, what did my changed hair really mean?
Simply that God had brought me through a hard place to where I was healthy, happy, and above all here.
For in the end, “Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. So do not be afraid..” (Luke 12:7).
The difficulties aren’t over, but through this it has reminded me that God works in the details of our lives too, as we journey forward with him. His power was and continues to be made perfect in my weakness, and his grace is sufficient for me (2 Cor. 12:9).
Julia enjoys reading, drinking tea, and traveling. She has learned to like exercise, which surprises her as much as anyone. Currently running a taxi service for her three children, she lives in Lancaster County with her husband and attends a local Mennonite church.