Birth, Babies, and Beyond

Pregnancy, birth, and parenting

How to Survive a Chemotherapy Haircut

Accompanying My Friend to Her Wig Fitting

After my girlfriend, Ellen, had her first bout of chemotherapy and after she got her appetite back, we indulged in a really decadent lunch. That’s when we decided we would eat our way through her ovarian cancer, splurging during the breaks in between chemo sessions when she was feeling good enough to enjoy a meal. We ate and talked kids, careers, books, and movies. We didn’t avoid the cancer talk. But we didn’t dwell either.

The other day on the way to the dry-cleaners, I ran into Ellen and she asked me to join her that afternoon for her head shave and wig fitting. How could I refuse?

And yet, I worried I’d sob the whole time and not be the support system she needed. Watching a friend have her hair removed is watching her parade into Cancerland. Up until now, she may have been marching through hell but I was loitering in deep denial. We met outside her apartment at noon.

All morning, I had tried to image what a hair stylist majoring in chemotherapy cuts and cancer wigs would be like—particularly one on the tony upper east side of Manhattan. Ellen’s aunt was paying for her to get a top-of-the-line wig.

I imagined it would be spacious and white and pink. White for sanitary/medical. Pink for girls. Then I visualized the hair-cutters. I pictured either (a) overly perky and saccharine-sweet chattering away in cheerleader diction to distract from the whole cancer theme (yuck!) or (b) overly soothing and sympathetic with airy yoga-teacher voices to make peace with all the bad stuff going on (equally yuck).

What we got was anything but cheerleader or yoga. And there wasn’t anything close to a slick paint job. We entered a drab apartment on the first floor of skinny walk-up. I’m talking no décor whatsoever. Pine cabinets and tables with lots of wigs each one fitted on a head-shaped form. There were wigs on the table and wigs on the bookshelves and rows of wig shampoo in the cabinet above the kitchen sink.

We were greeted immediately by the beautician. Again, nothing like I expected. Think Catskill comedian meets Italian Jersey shore. He said “Fahgettaboutit” and “you-know-what-I’m-saying” more often than someone doing a bad impression of how often New Yorkers say “Fagettabout” and “you-know-what-I’m-saying.” He bellowed when he spoke and put his face really close to yours.

In the old days, he said, when he was doing wigs “for like regular, crazy people,” the hairdressers really looked down on the wigmakers. “I mean it’s like putting a gay in the same room as Rick Santorum. Fahgettaboutit. You know what I’m saying?”

“Rita,” he hollered, “you can buzz her.”

His utter lack of sympathetic clichés made him all the more caring. He was loud and blunt and matter-of-fact and somehow that made the whole process a lot easier to digest.

Ellen winced when he started to cut her already short hair and said she didn’t expect so much scalp pain. It hurt putting her head on a pillow, something her doctors never told her. That’s typical the first few days after chemo, her stylist said. He ought to know. After all, he’s been dealing with cancer patients for decades.

But not to worry, he added. “Yeah, I think once your body gets used to, the uh, you know the tingling sensation, it’s like putting up with a tooth ache. After a couple days, you don’t even remember what it feels like not to have it.”

Well, that’s reassuring.

“When do you go for the next chemo?,” he asked.

“Tuesday,” said Ellen.

“So you’ll feel really sick on Friday. It’s mathematical.”

And, indeed, he spoke as if Ellen’s future was as predictable and straightforward as addition and subtraction.

I asked why he had a mirror in front of the chair. Did clients really want to watch as he buzzes? He said he swings the chair backwards for a lot of women but Ellen, he could tell was “well adjusted. You know what I’m saying?”

He doesn’t even have a barber chair, just a regular wooden desk chair with a swivel that makes him lean over so much it must hurt his back. Did he ever think of getting a chair that most hairdressers have that go up and down?

“Too Luciano,” he said.

The appointment lasted probably twice as long as we needed to be there, because there were so many stories. We heard about his visits to clients in their fancy apartments. (Of course, like any experienced and uber-verbal hair stylist, he knows how to gab without revealing a client’s identity.) Another woman, he said has trouble adjusting her wig. “And she went to Harvard. You know what I’m saying?”

“You know why she can’t adjust her wig,” he asked us (or really asked himself to lead into the next tale.) “Because she can’t cook. They order in all the time. If you can’t cook, you can’t fiddle with a wig. I don’t know an Italian man who would stand for that. My kids expect my wife to cook a three or four course meal every night. You know what I’m saying? Faghettagboutit.”

Ellen added that she’s worried about getting the wig on right and she’s a Harvard grad, too. But he wasn’t listening to us. He was busy with his own stories.

Then he pulled out her wig—a gorgeous, long, reddish piece with wispy front layers. He put it on but said he would need an hour, at least, to cut it down and fix the front. He suggested we go for lunch.

 Before we left, I took a snapshot of Ellen with her pre-styled luscious red hairdo and e-mailed the pictures to her boyfriend and relatives. She looked fabulous. Thanks to her wigmaker, I didn’t cry at all and then, as will be our usual, we went for another fancy lunch.

(If you have had a similar or not-so-similar time with a wig-fitting or head shave, please share your experience. join the conversation at http://randihutterepstein.com)

Randi Hutter Epstein, M.D., is the author of Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank.

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