Finding Beauty in the Ordinary
Loss is a part of life, and with a chronic condition or illness, loss is woven into the fabric of your being. However, everyone has encountered moments, and seasons, of loss. People can leave, illness can come and visit, jobs can be lost, our world changes, and we are left to pick up the pieces (if there are any). I am here to tell you, through my past bouts with depression, and my current growth on my spine and diagnosis with cancer, that loss doesn’t need to define you and that one can find peace and joy in it all.

Loss has come to me in many forms, but I am going to share my story about my recent chemo hair loss and how I have dealt with it.  As I have mentioned before, I believe we are more similar than different, so I know the tidbits I have learned on how to deal with loss, may help you in your life. I’ll begin with my story, share five steps on how to find peace and joy in loss and then finally exhibit my latest chemo head looks (i.e. bald, wigs and hennahead)

I kept telling myself, “It’s just hair!!!”, but societal and family programing told me different. My attached sense of womanhood to my breasts and flowing hair was now being ripped apart with a surgery scarred breast and chemotherapy hair loss. As weird as it may sound, I was more frightened about my altered breast and being bald than the trauma of the treatments.

I’ve had a history with my hair, like most women.

As I thought of writing this piece I remembered being a child and completely unaware of my physical appearance or caring what others thought of me. Then something changed in my social programming where I became aware of others and was swayed by their perceived thoughts of me. At the age of seven, Edith Ann, age 8, cut my blonde hair, on her front porch, to jaggedness and clumps. With my mom’s full expression of my name (you know, when the middle name is added to nail home the importance of the situation), I realized she wasn’t as impressed with this haircut as I was. I informed her that I got the haircut for free, thinking that Scotty Burns would be pleased, but dismay was all I read on her face and body. The next day, an emergency intervention was had at Arnold’s Hair Salon. However, my hair failed to respond (as there wasn’t much left), and my seven year old self failed to understand the dire situation of a bad haircut. I survived and carried on happily, and now, this is one of the stories my family enjoys telling to complete strangers about me (and now you know, so they don’t need to tell you!).

And then the day happened, when a person I had a crush on, noticed me and my hair. ***swoon***  It was in Grade 6, and for picture day, I took the time and effort (which I normally didn’t) to style my hair (i.e. blow drying it straight!).  My crush was my Grade 6 Math teacher and, to this 12 year old, he smelled divine. My dad did the Old Spice thing, as this is what we gave him for Christmas and Father’s Day, but Mr. H. smelt like BRUT! When the picture packages arrived, Mr. H. handed them out to my class. He whistled at mine, I blushed profusely, and from that moment I fell into the sinkhole of attachment to another’s perception.

The funny thing is that I have never felt like a feminine woman. Growing up I played more sports than most guys and my closet and shoe collection was very limited (and still is). It was through my hair and breasts that I felt my femininity. Even when I was at my heaviest, and I hated my body, I loved my breasts and found joy in my hair. So I find it interesting that this cancer, and its treatment, has challenged this thinking by attacking the two things I identify as being a woman with.

We have all had our moments with our hair: Bad hair days… flyaway and frizz bombs… bad hair cuts… awesome flow moments…. helmet head…mayhems of mangled mess…. “What the F*ck happened here?” hair…and now for me, no hair days.

Whether it be hair loss from chemo, an end of a relationship, employment termination, or other changes, loss can cut you down. And it has the possibility of destroying you. But it doesn’t have to.

I sometimes catch my reflection, at home, and I don’t recognize myself. My head is bald, my eyebrows are barely there and my once full and long eyelashes are sparse. The cancer and its treatments have altered my body, but I am coming to terms with it. I’m not going to say that every day is a bed of roses, but I have come to accept “this is who I am today”.

Loss has the ability to change us. We can choose to make ourselves stronger or we can wallow and drown. I believe that positive change and movement can happen. Granted there are days (weeks) when that seems hard to see as the clouds are surrounding our world, but the sun and the moon are still in the sky.

Here are some of the steps I have taken (through my past bouts with depression, the physical and mental strain of the growth on my spine and dealing with my cancer surgery and treatments) to help me deal with loss:

1. Stop fighting. What?!? Often when we are hurt, our defenses naturally go up. I say, bring them down. Don’t put on that brave face. Feel the sadness of your loss. In a safe way, express your anger. I have sobbed into my pillows. Alone, I have screamed at the roof (and after all is released, I then apologized to my cats for scaring them). I madly scribble words and sentences down on pages and pages of paper. It is important to get that pain, frustration and sadness out of the body. (Also know that anger and depression will flow in and out of your life, concerning this loss, for weeks, months and perhaps years. It is okay. You are normal. Just let it all pass through.).

2. Rest. Loss is mentally, emotionally and physically tiring. Often when we have experienced loss, we try to keep ourselves busy in order not to think/feel our pain. Loss can turn on the manic button; we tackle our ‘to do’ lists, we go out and get together with others more, we binge watch NetFlix and do things to occupy ourselves. There is nothing wrong in being productive and wanting to fill our time. But it is in the space, the silent moments, where healing can happen. Step away from the expectations of life and just ‘be.’ So, pencil in a nap on the Saturday afternoon. Sit down with a cup of tea and read that book you have been putting off. Close your eyes and let your favorite music drift you away. And get some good sleep. By healing your body, and giving it moments of rest and recuperation, you take the first steps of becoming stronger in your mind, body and spirit.

3. Ask for help. Did you know that one in ten Americans suffer from depression? (in my opinion I think it is higher due to the stigma of mental health) Did you know that pain affects more Americans than diabetes, heart disease and cancer combined? Loss in life in inevitable, but there are people around that can help you. Acknowledging that things aren’t going well is the first step in improving your situation. There is therapy for your physical needs as well as your mental needs, just as there is medication to help you with physical and mental pain. You are not necessarily stronger because “you are handling it on your own,” and you are not weak because you are seeking help. Taking the steps and actions to make yourself stronger, through your own work and the support of professionals, has strength and power.

4. Surround yourself with ‘good.’ As fall is approaching, in addition to the body temperature changes due to chemo, I find I need to layer my clothes. This idea can be used when dealing with loss. When we lose something of meaning, it is important for us to take care of our mind, body and spirit. Layer yourself with people, fur babies and things that nurture and feed you. Be gentle with yourself. Have people, music, food, books, shows and etc. in your presence that uplift and comfort you. Soothe and elevate your being. You deserve the best.

5. You can’t control the weather, but you can captain your own ship. The only person we can control is ourselves. I can’t control my chemo hair loss, but I can choose a path that will honor where I am right now. Often in loss, and chronic illnesses, we can focus on what we have lost, that we forget to pause and see all the blessings that still surround us. Yes, I have lost my hair, but what can I do right now, in this moment, to make my world a kinder and gentler place (for myself and/or others). Sometimes it can be as simple as taking the focus off me and sending a kind text to someone, stopping and feeling the warmth of the sun on my body, or smiling at the complete stranger who passes me. My head has been wiped clean from chemo, but I have head coverings made in love from friends, I have funky bamboo wraps that I bought at the Cross Cancer Institute, I have an awesome authentic New York Yankees ball cap purchased when I was at a Yankee's game in NYC, I have two wonderful wigs that two friends helped me choose, and just yesterday, I got my head hennaed (mendhi), by a wonderful henna artist. Yah, I like hair on my head, but this is all good…really good.

So what do you think? Do you have any other steps that have helped you with dealing with loss? Please share with me. I’m interested in hearing what works for you.

And if you think someone can benefit from this post, please share it with your family, friends and coworkers.

As I write this, my mom passed a year ago. Dad, Bonnie, Terri, Rob and I surrounded her in her last few days on this earth. We shared stories full of laughter and tears; love filled the air. 

Dealing with the effects of chemotherapy and your mom's passing can make for a tough day. Today, my brother sent a beautiful flower arrangement with a card that provoked so much more than words.  The sentence, "Mom's looking down and is proud of you," was the impetus to creatively remember her. 

So.... I put make up on (as the eyebrows and eyelashes kinda 'go' from chemo).  I put on the colour red, as she loved the colour on me. I went outside, on my deck amongst the trees and sky, as she loved nature and the view of the valley from its platform. I took a deep breath in, remembered her strength and took a picture.

She never 'approved' of short hair on me, but she may have been okay with this look today (concerning the circumstances). And with that said, even though she loved my smile, I think she would have liked this self-portrait. 

I miss you, mom. I love you.
Cancer Survivor, Barbara Burns, remembering her mom's one year passing. In Remembrance.