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Randi Hutter Epstein, MD, MPH

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How to Survive a Chemotherapy Haircut

Posted: 07/20/2012 11:00 am

When my friend Ellen recovered her appetite after her first round of chemotherapy, we indulged in a really decadent lunch. 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 on it, 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 that I'd sob the whole time and not be the support system she needed. Watching my friend have her hair removed would make it all feel too real -- and I wasn't ready to leave the land of 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 the salon would be spacious and adorned in shades of white and pink: White for sanitary/medical reasons; pink for femininity. Then I visualized the hair-cutters. I pictured either (a) an overly perky and saccharine-sweet woman chattering away in cheerleader diction to distract my friend from the whole cancer theme (yuck!) or (b) am overly soothing and sympathetic woman with a yoga teacher voice, trying to let my friend make peace with all the bad stuff going on (equally yuck).

What we got was anything but. We entered a drab apartment on the first floor of a narrow walk-up -- I'm talking no décor whatsoever. Pine cabinets stood behind tables loaded with wig upon wig, 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, he was 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 and put his face really close to ours when he spoke.

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 warned her about. 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 toothache. 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."

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 he could tell Ellen 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 the chair that most hairdressers have that go up and down?

"Too Luciano," he said.

The appointment lasted probably twice as long as it needed to be because he told 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 just asked himself as a way 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. Then, as usual, we went for another fancy lunch -- one of many more to come.

(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)

 

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