Contributions by other people

Anne McKenzie Nickolson, USA

I made a visit to my friend when she was undergoing chemotherapy in the hospital. She was on a regular monthly schedule, and I would visit her in the middle of her week of treatments. There was one week when I went to visit her in the late afternoon, and I had just washed my hair (which is long). It was still damp and I had it down, rather than the sides pinned up with a clip which is my usual. She had never seen my hair down, and was talking about how long and pretty it was, then she said 'We're jealous,' referring to herself and her room-mate. Her room-mate was an older woman, I think about 70, who was so healthy otherwise, they were giving her chemo for her cancer even though it is not usually done for people of that age. My friend had lost her hair already and was wearing a wig. Her roommate was wearing a little cloth hospital/surgical-type cap - one of those green things that ties on much like a surgical mask. She pulled her cap off to reveal a few random short strands of hair on her head, looked inside the cap, and said 'See there's more.'

As soon as my friend had mentioned anything about my hair, I started to feel uncomfortable and sort of guilty to have what seemed like more than my share of hair. I asked her what it was like to lose it, did it come out gradually or all at once? She said that shortly after she started chemo, she had gone out to buy a wig -- just like her to be prepared. She said that one day in the shower, it just started coming out in clumps, not little by little, but in handfuls. She immediately started wearing the wig, and in all the times I visited her at the hospital, she was never without it and always tried to look about the same as always.

When I went to see her 10 days before she died, I went to her house where she was in bed. She had warned me beforehand that she couldn't deal with make-up and a wig anymore, so if I could 'deal with it' she would love to see me. It was then that she looked drastically different from the friend I had known for 14 years. She looked small and fragile, her hair was brown and thin, and I almost wouldn't have recognized her except for her voice. We had a nice visit for about an hour, she talked about finishing some work she had started, and we had a pretty normal-type conversation. I saw her one more time, four days later. She was too tired for a visit, I just went up to her room to say hello. She had had a lot of visitors and needed to sleep. I offered to turn the light out for her, but she wanted to do that, she said it was one of the few things she could still do for herself.

The conversation we had about hair was one of the most intimate conversations we had ever had. I think it was because it was such a basic subject, so intimately a part of who we are. Her body had been changing on the inside, but the change to her outside (her hair loss), I'm sure made it more real. And it was also something that I could relate to. I can't really imagine what it would be like to have cancer or to have chemotherapy, but I can imagine what it would be like to lose my hair. And I imagine it with panic and depression, that it would be the start of the total collapse to come. It was something that she accepted with grace.