Commentary

Sorry About the Cancer. How's Your Hair?

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Commentator Debra Jarvis has been a hospital chaplain for 20 years — she serves on the staff of the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. Last year, she herself was diagnosed with breast cancer. When she told people about her diagnosis, she found that all they wanted to talk about was her hair.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Commentator Debra Jarvis knows more about cancer than most people. She has been a hospital chaplain for 20 years, and right now she's on the staff of the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. Last year she herself was diagnosed with breast cancer and she learned something about cancer that she never knew before.

DEBRA JARVIS reporting:

It's not about the hair, but that's one of the first things people ask me about when I told them I had breast cancer. Will you lose your hair? Some people just assumed I would. There goes the hair, one of my friends said trying to be light and funny. I looked at her and thought, you have terrible hair. You'd love for me to lose mine.

Having cancer was not bringing out the best in me. But the thing is, it's really not about the hair, it's really about death. People die from cancer all the time, but it's so impolite to say, will you lose your life? Much easier to ask about the hair, because if you don't lose your hair, you can almost pretend that you don't have cancer.

Sure, you may be tired and nauseated, your surgery site may hurt, you may have sores in your mouth, your fingernails may be falling off and getting infected, but these are not things that people notice immediately or at all. No one can look at you and say chemo patient.

But if you go bald, you are marked. You can't pretend that everything is normal and that you don't think about death. It's hard for others to pretend that they don't think about death when they look at you. Your bald head shows death in their faces, and most people really hate thinking about dying. So they struggle to ask the right questions. Is asking what's your prognosis too nosey? The answer to that could just lead to more awkwardness. It's safer to ask will your hair grow back?

But here's the good thing about losing your hair, you can't pretend that everything is normal.

One woman who had just lost her hair to chemo said to me, I had chemo for three years and never lost my hair. My family acted as if nothing were wrong. Where are my jeans? Did you call the travel agent? What's for dinner? But now, my God, they're freaking out and falling over themselves to help me.

I didn't lose much of my hair and I worked throughout my treatment. I could pretend that everything was normal, except that every Thursday afternoon, I climbed into a bed, received my chemo and spent the weekend recovering. Someone called my therapy Barbie chemo because I didn't lose all my hair. I would've been furious but I didn't have the energy.

No, it's not about the hair, but people want to make it about the hair because it's so hard to listen to someone talk about fear and pain and grief. But if you can listen to someone talk about those feelings, then when you do talk about the hair, it will really be about the hair.

SIEGEL: Debra Jarvis is a chaplain for the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

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