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When Cancer Takes Your Hair

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On March 9 of this year, my son will have his head shaved to highlight the St. Baldrick's Foundation, a mission dedicated to fighting for children with cancer, and to raise money for eventual cures. One of the reasons that Sam wanted to do this was because I had cancer, and he hates cancer. I could not let him do this alone, so I told him that if he was doing it, I was doing it. This mini-chain reaction has now enveloped my dad. Three generations of Duffy's will have their heads shaved for St. Baldrick's.

This is going to be undeniably bittersweet. First and absolutely foremost, I am so proud of my son. He's only seven years old, but he has an idea of how bad cancer is and how much we need to do anything we can to wipe it out. And he won't be deterred. I've tried on a few occasions to give him an out, a la "Buddy, you don't have to do this."

His response, every time: "Dad, I want to do this."

Me, not so much. Look, there's no way I would wimp out of this. If he has the courage to do it, then I have the courage to stand up with my son. But I would be lying if I said that I was looking forward to seeing myself bald again.

Cancer is about a series of moments that kind of jumble together. It is such a frenetic experience that by the time you are thankfully done with treatment, you try to take stock in what just happened. And therein lies the rub: you have no idea what happened. For me, I felt exhausted. I lost weight. I lost a testicle. I vomited up broccoli... and I hadn't eaten broccoli in years. And somewhere in there, thank God, my cancer was annihilated.

But one of those indelible moments was the moment I started losing my hair.

It's slick how chemotherapy works. It lulls you into a false sense of security. You don't feel a single side effect for the first three days. You think you have it beat. It's like the second fight in Rocky III, when the Italian Stallion taunts Clubber Lang. "Hit me! You're not so bad!!"

But when you wake up on day four, you feel like Rocky after the first fight in Rocky III, when Clubber not only showed how bad he was, but took out Mick in the process.

And yet, you still think you've beaten fate because you keep your hair for almost another week. You just know that you are going to be the only one who doesn't lose it. You still have an air of invincibility. "Well, thank God I still have my hair."

And then, on day 12, you wake up and something doesn't feel right. Your skin and your scalp are itchy, tingly, like how you feel right before a fever sets in. And then you scratch your head for that first time...

... and it looks like you've manually pleasured a gorilla.

And at first, you don't believe it. You take a shower. "Maybe it's just a few strands," you lie to yourself. And then when you rinse the shampoo, it all becomes clear. It is the absolute worst feeling on earth. Your invincibility is gone. It is the very first moment where you feel that you now have not a shred of control.

Robin Roberts from Good Morning America recently went through this, and she described it in this way: "Emotionally, it was devastating and draining. And as so many who have traveled this path before me had encouraged, as hard as it was, I knew what I had to do. I shaved it all off... I've joined that choir. That's a bit of advice I now preach, because when it starts to fall out, phew, that's rough."

It's rougher than you can possibly imagine. In your mind, you might as well be a kite in a hurricane... moving wherever the winds of chemo and cancer will take you. You are so unimaginably low that you can't even think straight. Dare I say it... you grieve for yourself. Nothing quite humbles you like that.

And that's when you slap yourself in the face and get mad. "Screw you cancer, you're not taking my hair! I'M TAKING MY HAIR!!!" Which, in all honesty, is a bit of, "Nose, meet spite."

It's like you become four years old all over again. "Want some help losing your hair, honey?" "No! I want to do it... myself!"

The reality is that you're sort of doing chemo's job for it, but the perception is the polar opposite. And in a battle with cancer, perception is always reality. It will be the last time that you have power over your decisions for a while, and you hold onto that illusion for as long as you can... until the clippers are turned off and the deed is done.

Which brings me back to my own reality of a few days from now. It has been eleven years to the month of that fateful morning where it looked like my right palm met Magilla. I still remember it vividly. It was the morning of the day where I had my hair shaved off for the first time, after which I told myself, "Never again."

And yet here I am... again... doing this by choice... for Sam, for my dad, and for every child who has to endure much worse forms of this disease than I have ever faced.

And while I'm not quite looking forward to actual scalping, I'm very much looking forward to standing up to cancer with my son and my dad at my sides. And on that day when it happens, there won't be a single place on earth I'd rather be.

See more at thehalffund.org.

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