Grand Rounds

Why we do the things we do

Wayne's World, Wigs, Wecovery and Wesilience

Looking like Garth never felt so good

imageI look exactly and uncomfortably like Garth Algar from Wayne's World when I wear my wife's wig.

This may sound sort of clichéd and confessional (i.e. "Hi, my name is Steve, and I like to wear my wife's wig") but that's not what this is about.

The fact is, a few weekends back, my whole family took turns wearing my wife's hairpiece. My 9 year old looked sort of retro, like a new member of the B-52's without the mini-skirt. My 3 and ½ year old looked, oddly, crazy and old, a mixture of Benjamin Button and perhaps an exotic terrier.

And I looked exactly like Garth.

It helped that I was bouncing around the room, jumping on the bed, flinging my "hair" back and forth, relishing the feeling as the strands alternately danced along my bare back and then flopped forward to cover my eyes. Maybe a bit of AC/DC would have helped, but it was good enough just to dance.

This was the experience of an entire family breathing as one, acknowledging and then mocking the ugly visitor that showed up rudely and uninvited last Thanksgiving. On that day, I managed, like an idiot, to check my wife's medical record before the doctor got back to her and discovered that rather than being able to reassuringly tell her that the lump she had discovered was benign, in fact she was now, officially, a cancer patient. She had breast cancer, and there was no in-between.

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Life degenerates quickly into stale axioms during these times, and we wore all those sayings down to nothing but threadbare coverings of terror. We'll cope. We'll see the best doctors. It could be worse. (I hate that one - of course it could be worse, but that doesn't mean it still doesn't personally suck.)

We are now, thankfully, through the initial surgeries, through the chemotherapy, through the surreal walks through the healing garden and the oddly peaceful setting of the infusion suite where you sit, reading books, and receive toxins that make no attempt in their nomenclature to hide their steadfast intentions. In my business, brand names for medications confer sought-after qualities - Abilify (confers ability), Celexa (will settle you), and Seroquel (makes you serene.)

What went into my wife's arm? Cytoxin. Cell poison. There's no ambiguity in that name.

And yet, these unambiguous names for chemotherapeutic agents were about the most concretely reliable thing about the entire experience. There were all sorts of unpredictable events, even though we had a relatively uneventful course. And I know I keep saying "we", and that only my wife in fact had (or has) cancer, but I can tell you, it was definitely "we." No other pronoun works.  At least not for me. 

We received excellent care. Our friends and family were incredibly supportive and generous. My wife is strong and beautiful and did very, very well. We are, in fact, and thank goodness, very, very fortunate.
But it still sucks. I had a medical school professor who famously told us that at times you have to say to the patient: "Gee whiz, cancer sucks." And he's right. It does.

But now my wife's hair is growing back. It is downy, a soft landscape taking root on her scalp, soft as lamb's ear. We all like to lounge around up there, rubbing our fingers through the silky texture. It's like frolicking on a cloud.

But when it first disappeared...well, I couldn't stop thinking of a famous poem. You see, her hair just sort of plopped out. No explosion or renting of garments. It was terrifying precisely because of its banality. Remember Eliot's "The Hollow Men?":

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

I thought my world was ending. A bald wife I can handle - but the meaning o f her baldness, of that wig, scared me nearly to death. I could barely whimper.

But the world, my world, didn't end. After 8 months of that damn wig sitting like an otter on its four pronged stand, I decided to pull it over my naturally bald head. I jumped up and down on the bed and my wife laughed so hard she was crying. It damn near killed her to laugh so hard. My daughters ran around the house, the wig streaming behind their relieved backs, the breast cancer maybe there, maybe gone, but we were done with it for now.

It was Wayne's World. Party Time. Excellent.

Steven Schlozman, M.D., is an Associate Director of Medical Student Education in Psychiatry for Harvard Medical School.

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