During my hospital stay for the initial treatment for an acute form of leukemia, I woke at four o' clock one morning with my scalp itching like I'd slept on a pillow of poison ivy. I began to scratch it and realized my thick, long, blonde locks were falling out in clumps. Although I had far bigger concerns at the time, I wasn't thrilled about becoming a member of the (no)Hair Club for Cancer Patients. To distract myself from the emotional devastation of this development, I clicked on the television... to the live broadcast of Kate Middleton walking down the aisle in her wedding gown, her long, dark hair flowing beneath her veil. Talk about a blow to one's self-image.
As any chemo veteran knows, it ain't easy being bald. Cancer is ugly, and when you're feeling down about the inside of your body, your outer appearance can seem even more important, which translates into horrific timing for having to deal with a new... um... headstyle.
Some patients can pull off a wig with panache. Others, to my great admiration, go boldly bald (occasionally with henna tattoos or stick-on-jewel accents). I took the hat approach and gave it my all. Over the course of a year, and with the generosity of my mother and sister-in-law, and many other kind souls, I accumulated over 40 hats in various styles, colors, and textures.
My hair is now boy-length, and I no longer worry that when people look at me, they're wondering if I'm going to die. I've put my hat collection in hibernation, until my hair grows long enough for me to truly view them as fashion pieces. But before I relegated them to storage, I gave them one last hurrah, to show other cancer patients one woman's take on doing chemo in style.
A photography studio in my town, Magique Studios, volunteered their time to do the photo shoot. They are wonderful people, and they made me feel so comfortable. The walls of their lounge are adorned with portraits of beautiful brides -- women filled with innocence and optimism. At first, I longed to feel that emotion again, and then I realized how far I've come since watching the Duchess seemingly float down the aisle in her Sarah Burton gown.
In remission but still in treatment, I'm so grateful for the chemo that made me lose my hair. In the spirit of staying positive and focusing on what I could control, hats and fashion became a component of my art therapy.
With the pictures in this slideshow, I've included some style and hat selection tips. (Full disclosure: the photo shoot was done after my energy level -- and hair -- had begun to return.)
It's so much easier to recognize the beauty of other cancer patients than oneself. To my fellow fighters, please trust me and others who say: you are beautiful.
The best hat to start a collection is one that you love. This is my favorite. When I was still very weak and haggard, I wore it to most of my oncology appointments. The silver threading made me feel slightly more glamorous (and slightly less broken). The cotton fabric is comfortable, both in terms of texture and temperature. Because of its versatility, black is a must-have for a collection. (Photo of Shelley Nolden, courtesy of Magique Studios)
A few solid color hats, with some interesting detailing, can go a long way. They can be dressed up or down and worn with much of your existing wardrobe. Matching a hat to your outfit every single day can be a challenge, and a few staples in basic colors can make the exercise less daunting. When selecting the hats you plan to wear often, look for washable fabrics. (Many of my hats, including this one, were ordered on-line at Headcovers Unlimited.) This hat works well with either a dress or jeans. For formal events, downplaying a hat can make your dress/shoes the focal point of your attire. Conversely, you can pin a rhinestone brooch to a solid-colored cap for a bold splash of glam – perfect for a StupidCancer or First Descents event. (Photo of Shelley Nolden, courtesy of Magique Studios)
Not only is this hat beautiful, but: A) Its interior is soft (avoid scratchy materials that are uncomfortable on bare skin) B) It covers the base of my skull (regular hats, especially baseball caps, don’t always provide full coverage in back) C) It provides ventilation (although the felt is a warmer fabric, the loose fit around my ears keeps my head cooler. A hat that is too warm can trigger an urge to yank it off at the most inopportune moment…) Also, the neutral color makes it go with almost any outfit. (Photo of Shelley Nolden, courtesy of Magique Studios)
‘Nuf said. (Photo of Shelley Nolden, courtesy of Magique Studios)
Cancer patients are beautiful people, and there are times when they’ve just gotta flaunt it! A few statement hats can round out a collection, and they make great gifts (But don’t go too outrageous when picking a gift hat: if it’s not something you would wear in public, chances are your loved one/friend will feel the same way.). Statement hats are usually more expensive, and since they’re worn less often, not as practical a purchase. But I always felt my best on the days I wore my fancy hats, and when my hair is long enough again, they’ll be the first I pull out of retirement. (Photo of Shelley Nolden, courtesy of Magique Studios)
Aside from changing your appearance, hats serve a practical function: they protect your bare skin from the elements. The brim of this sunhat is large enough to shade my head, and it made me feel “normal” because it wasn’t designed for cancer patients. Unfortunately, for that very reason, I couldn’t wear it while completely bald. The synthetic straw felt scratchy against my skin, so I opted for a cotton, floppy-brimmed hat when going outside in the summer. Other practical essentials for a hat collection include skull caps for sleeping (stubble against a pillow can be uncomfortable) and for exercising (choose fabrics used for work-out gear). (Photo of Shelley Nolden, courtesy of Magique Studios)
Although you may view donning a hat before you step out in public as a must, don’t forget that most of the fashion world views a hat as simply one of many options for accessorizing an outfit. So don’t neglect the wide world of glorious shoes! And bold red pants! If this photo had preceded the article, you would never have wondered whether I had hair – works like magic or, in this case, Magique! (Photo of Shelley Nolden, courtesy of Magique Studios)
I wish you good healing and health, and I hope you remember: no matter how crummy you may be feeling on the inside, the people surrounding you are awed and inspired by your strength and beauty. Please share the ways you’ve dealt with self-image issues during treatment! Also, what is your favorite (or least favorite) hat and why? (Photo of Shelley Nolden, courtesy of Magique Studios)
Follow Shelley Nolden on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@ShelleyNolden