Three years ago, a motivated (and brave) high school classmate of mine, tasked herself with putting together our 20 year high school reunion. She started off by setting up a Facebook group for our graduating year and invited people to join the group. People began to join and
hunt down locate other classmates and slowly a plan formed for a reunion. I had fun seeing what people were up to and where their lives had taken them, but reunions and parties in general aren’t my thing, so I didn’t attend the actual reunion.
Through the FB group, I reconnected with a lovely woman who I had been in choir with throughout my high school years, Terri. Terri was a joy. If you’ve ever been, or known, a teenage girl, you know that puberty is one long dramatic saga. Even the best of friends can have falling outs over stupid, trivial things. In four years of high school, not once did I ever have an unkind thought about Terri, for she was kind and carried a happiness in her that bubbled up in a way I envied. She was sunshine and puppies and rainbows, but in a genuine way. I can still recall the sound of her laughter and it makes me smile.
Terri and I discovered we had quite a few things in common as adults and exchanged emails, making each other laugh and delighting in the rediscovery of each other as the adults we’d become. Then, Terri had an irregular medical test. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Awful, awful, awful. But I read, and it was my understanding that cervical cancer, which serious, is rarely the show stopper that ovarian or breast cancer is, so I had hope. We all did. People rallied. Terri brought that out in people. There would be something seriously wrong with an individual who didn’t immediately become charmed by her and her sweetness.
There was surgery and radiation and tests. Then more bad news. She told me her oncologist used phrases like, “In thirty years of practicing medicine, I have never seen anything like this,” but not in the sense of a miracle cure, but the cancer was not responding to the treatment. Next was intensive chemo and trying to get into a cancer treatment center that would give her a fighting chance. She sought out ways to change her diet and eliminate GMOs from what she and her family ate, as she was convinced this is what contributed to her health problems.
The news kept getting worse. Her health declined more and more. I wept with each new piece of horrible information. I wept for Terri, I wept for her two small children, for her husband, for her brother, for her parents, for her nieces and nephews and for all of us who knew her as the information we received went from bad to worse.
Several times, as Terri revealed each new horror she endured and with each bad test result, she would say, “Life is good. It will never be the same, but life is good.” I couldn’t believe it, and I certainly didn’t understand it at the time. How can life be good in the face of cancer? Well, I get it now, LIFE is good, it’s death that sucks ass and cancer and sickness, but life? Well, that’s good and full of marvelous things if we take the time to enjoy them.
When it became clear that the radiation did nothing and the chemo hadn’t even slowed things, Terri did the unimaginable. She planned a party. She & her husband decided to renew their vows and invite everyone they knew. It was going to be a potluck and we were all invited to come and take part in life being good. But then she started getting much, much sicker and the party had to be moved up to accommodate that. And then, the party had to be moved to the hospital because she had to be admitted.
Thank heavens for Facebook and cell phones and digital cameras and the kind people at the hospital where Terri was receiving treatment. She and her husband were able to renew their vows in front of everyone who could make there in one of the meeting rooms at the hospital. Sadly, I couldn’t make it, but was able to send flowers. There were photos galore, video, and people Facetimed others who also couldn’t make it for the event. Terri was beautiful and glowing, despite the oxygen mask and wheelchair she had to use. I cried buckets. She died the next morning, and I cried more buckets of tears.
When Terri started chemo, she lost her hair, and that was so, so hard for her. She had the kind of thick, straight, blond hair that women spends hundreds of dollars at salons to try to achieve, and her hair had stayed that beautiful blond color in adulthood. She mourned the loss of her hair. Her mom mourned the loss of her hair, too, reminiscing in a blog post about how strangers would stop her in stores when Terri was little to comment on what beautiful hair she had. I think up to that point the cancer and its treatment had been bad, but losing her hair meant she was Sick with a capital ‘s’, and it was a reality she couldn’t escape.
I think as women the two things that immediately make us recognizable as women to the world at large are our hair and our boobs. Losing one, or both, due to cancer treatment seems to take away a woman’s femininity. Psychologically, it’s robbing women of a piece of their identity, and it was the one teeny, tiny thing I could do that would in a very miniscule way, help.
There are many charities and organizations that accept hair donations and provide wigs for those who lose their hair for medical reasons, but I decided to donate my hair to the Beautiful Lengths Project sponsored by Pantene, because it is specifically for women who have lost their hair from chemo.
I didn’t donate my hair for a pat on the back, and I am certainly not sharing this story to brag. If it wasn’t for my Fabulous Forty goals, I probably would have just mailed off the hair without a peep, but for everyone out there who knows, or has known, a woman who has grappled with the inner and outer horrors of chemo and has uttered the phrase, ” I with there was something I could do to help,” well, there is, and it does make a difference in the quality of life for those who receive these wigs.
Donating my hair was also a celebration. I have known several women who faced a breast cancer diagnosis and are still with us today. There’s my nephew’s birth mother, Karen, who battled back from an initial diagnosis of Stage III breast cancer; my son’s kindergarten teacher, Mardel, who has beat cancer three times; a woman I used to work for, Casey, who had breast cancer twice; the grandmother of one of my son’s classmates; the mother of my husband’s supervisor; and the mother-in-law of one of my sisters, who passed away many years ago, but still proved there’s life after breast cancer.
So, ladies and gentlemen, if you have 8 inches (or more) of hair that is less than 5% gray and has not been chemically treated in any way, I do hope you’ll consider making your own donation to Beautiful Lengths to help a woman going through chemo help preserve her dignity and femininity. And if you aren’t in a position to make a hair donation, then at least try to remember that Life is Good. Be kind. Hug someone. Tell people you love them every chance you get. It’s always worth it.