Can I get cancer if I hug you?

“Your head feels cool Ma, I love you” said Mack as he rubbed my baldhead.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer my kids were upset. More than their tears and their fear – they loved me hard. They loved me a lifetime worth in the months after my diagnosis.

If I had ever doubted that I was loved in this life – they removed all doubt.

“Can I get cancer when I hug you? Will you be ok? Are you going to be bald? I like your hair Mama, will it grow back if it falls out. Why will it fall out?” Mack asked.

My diagnosis was hard on Samantha but she determined her role from the start – caregiver. Mack was younger and couldn’t truly grasp what cancer meant.

He was primarily concerned with what was going to happen to my hair. I didn’t look sick. I didn’t act too sick. He saw how tired I was after I started chemo. He saw me lay in the bathroom floor on a blanket near the toilet. I was too tired to walk from my bed to the bathroom to throw up after my first chemo. He watched me and he hugged me. He carried around hand sanitizer all the time. If I touched anything he said, “hold out your hand Ma. You gotta get rid of those germs”. He didn’t let me open the doors or push the grocery cart; too many germs. “Remember Mama; the doctor said you have to be careful about germs now.”

When my hair fell out –

Samantha hugged me and held me;

Mack was afraid of me.

When I was bald

I looked sick.

My kids loved the stories I made up for them when they were growing up.  Their favorite was a story about Aubrey, a mischievous albino bat and Ghostly, …well a little boy ghost. Each night the three of us would usually lie on one of their beds and I would give them the latest exploits of Ghosty and Aubrey. A few days after I lost my hair, I was telling them how Aubrey had snuck into Mack’s backpack and gone to school with him. She spent the entire day getting him into trouble.

Samantha and Mack laughed.

“Tell us more,” they asked. As I continued on with the adventures of Aubrey, I noticed Mack was rubbing my head. He hadn’t really touched me or hugged me since my hair fell out. I think he noticed he was rubbing my baldhead about the same time I did.

He looked at me and grinned – “ your head feels cool Ma, I love you”.

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A Naked Picture

I wanted to post a picture of me after I had lost my hair. I had not seen a picture of me with no hair since that time. I didn’t know how I would feel to see me then. I went through all my external hard drives looking for pictures and I couldn’t find any. I gave up; maybe there were no pictures chronicling my breast cancer journey. I had found a couple of me wearing a wig, which I have posted.

When I was bald.

I hid behind my wigs.

I hid behind my smile.

I hid from cancer. If I didn’t have to look at it, it wasn’t real.

I mentioned to my son I had been looking for pictures of that time. He said, “I have one of you and Uncle Cliff.” I was surprised. I am not sure how he ended up with one but it was a relief to know there was a surviving picture. It was not hard to look at the picture of me even with no makeup, no sleep, nauseated and bald. It was hard to look at the mask I knew I was wearing. I could see in my eyes the fear and the exhaustion of trying to be strong.

During the time I was going through treatments, I was never bald in public. That would have been too hard. I would have felt naked. People would occasionally ask me what I looked like bald and I would whip off my wig and show them. I acted as if I didn’t mind. I would laugh and announce, “Who knew I had a perfect shaped head under all that hair!” When I showed myself with no hair – I always waited for the reaction. I always wondered if I would scare people or they would see the pieces of me I had hidden behind my hair. People always said I was beautiful without my hair when I did this, I just never believed them. My hair was lovely and it drew attention away from my insecurities.

I often talk about how I lost my hair and how it felt to have the part of me that had always defined who I was, gone in an instant. I have talked about the four different style wigs and how each wig showed a different piece of my personality. The Rachel wig was the proper Cathleen, the Phoebe wig was the badass Cathleen. Zoe was the true Cathleen and Julia was the wild Cathleen. Wearing these wigs and recognizing the different personalities in each, helped me to find who I truly was – to find my authentic self. These wigs were my shield and protectors.

What I’ve never really talked about how it felt to be bald.

My head was always cold.

I had to wear soft knitted caps. Not everything would work on my head, many things hurt. Many things were too scratchy.

I saw a cancer patient when I saw my baldhead.

I felt naked.

I felt fear. I rushed through my days pretending I was fine but when the wig came off and the reality of my cancer looked back at me from the mirror … I wondered if I would die. I wondered if I would be cured. I wondered if I would die never knowing what it was like to be loved for who I was under the hair. I wondered what was my purpose for existing. Would I die and be forgotten, never having make a difference in the lives of others? I wondered if my kids would grow up without a mother. I wondered if they would forget how much I had loved them. I wondered if they would forget me. I wondered so many things that it makes me cry even today writing about it.

Being bald was the most vulnerable I had been in my life.

Being bald changed my life.

I found I was more than my hair.

BaldMe