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This Is What It Feels Like

Louise McSharry
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Louise McSharry tells us about losing her hair to cancer.

I started thinking about my hair within the first three minutes of being diagnosed with cancer. You see, I’d spent the previous year and half nursing it back to health after the guts of a decade of bleaching, and it had nearly killed me. I hated the boring, almost (ewww) natural colour it was, but had been tolerating it for the sake of options on my wedding day. I’d always pictured myself with long golden tresses under my veil, curled, 40s style around my face, and I wasn’t going to be able to do that if my hair kept breaking as a result of frequent colour changes.  But now I had cancer. So that was probably out the window anyway. I should obviously dye my hair pink as soon as possible.

‘I’m not that bothered about the hair thing,’ I told people cockily as I bounced around for the following month with a candy coloured barnet, ‘I’ve actually thought about shaving my head before.’ And the thing is, I really believed it.  I really thought it wouldn’t be a big deal. I’d had short hair before, and loved it!

It came as a shock to me, so, when I found myself crying, alone, afraid to leave the house after shaving my head. My hair had started falling out the previous week, and in order to stave off weeks of upset as clumps of it came out in the shower, I’d decided to get rid of it all.  Christian Shannon, Brown Sugar and SugarCubed’s Artistic Director has special training in this area and had very kindly offered to help me out. He made the actual shave very easy, asking a makeup artist to beautify my face beforehand and gently talking me through it. My best mate, boyfriend and I drank prosecco as the hair came off, and I literally said goodbye to it as it was swept away. ‘I’m grand!’ I assured everyone for the next two days. Then came those tears.

I needed to go to Tesco, but was paralysed by fear. The bravado had abandoned me, and I had no choice but to face the reality of what I was feeling – ugly and unfeminine. My feminist principles were rankled at the fact that my sense of femininity could be so easily damaged by a simple alteration of appearance. I think I’d thought, on some level, that I was better than that; that I wasn’t the type of person who’d get upset about something as frothy as a hairstyle. It came as a surprise, this upset. I didn’t leave the house that day – or even the next day.  The life of a hermit is not one that suits me though, so eventually I had to go out, and unsurprisingly, I was fine. No one stared at me, or made comment, and eventually I was happily bopping around town like nothing had happened at all.

It’s not over, though.  As I’ve typed this piece I’ve had to stop three times to blow hairs from my keyboard, and yesterday, in a Dunnes Stores changing room, I realized that I don’t look like someone who’s shaved their head anymore. I look like a sick person. So the upset is back. And this time it’s not about vanity, or femininity, it’s about the fact that I have cancer and I can’t really avoid it anymore. You would think that the chemotherapy, fatigue, nausea and meds would have brought that home for me, but no. For me it was my scalp shining through what is, at this point, a thin layer of duck fluff on the top of my head.

So, after weeks of arrogantly proclaiming that it had been a total waste of money, I wore my wig last night. I’ll probably wear it again tonight. My reflection is too much for me right now. I don’t want to think about the cancer, and I don’t want to make anyone else think about it either. That’s what it’s come down to. It’s not about being pretty, or stylish, it’s just about avoiding the reality of what’s going on. It’s about feeling normal for a while. For as long as I can.

@Louisemcsharry

This Daffodil Day please donate to the Irish Cancer Society online here, or by calling CallSave 1850 60 60 60. This article was originally published in October 2014.

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