I had two questions for Kara Clay last month. First, “Could I please make an appointment to have my head shaved?” and second, “Do you trim wigs?”
I am sure the kind hairstylist could hear the slight tremble in my voice when I called her less than two weeks before Christmas. She did not skip a beat and immediately put me at ease.
A breast cancer diagnosis at the beginning of September – a week after turning 42 – meant the rest of 2019 was full of twists and turns. Fortunately, I feel calmer and more confident now than I did in the fall.
I continue to gather information and prepare myself for what is to come. Still, I can’t help feeling somewhat blindsided heading into 2020. Each step in the treatment process is something new and different to me, and I continue to have many questions and concerns along the way. Everyone responds differently to treatments and I worry about side effects — short-term and long-term. I am getting through this the best that I can. Besides a medical team that I trust, some other things are helping me get through every day: prayers, faith, hope, and people around me. I have been surprised and overwhelmed at how many generous, thoughtful people (some who hardly even know me) have taken the time to offer words of encouragement and inspiration that I have taken to heart. I am filled with more hope now than ever before.
This first week of a new year I feel blessed. I feel much better than I thought I would be feeling after recently completing three cycles of chemotherapy. My husband is as sweet as can be and always says how “beautiful” I look. The other day, I felt he especially lifted my spirits when he told me that I looked “healthy.”
Thankfully, I feel I’m in a good place along the treatment route so far. My surgeon told me she is pretty confident she caught all the cancer cells during my single mastectomy in October. I am facing a few months of chemotherapy infusions, followed by radiation treatments. I understand all of this is to make sure all of the cancer cells were removed, and to prevent cancer from returning. After I was diagnosed, testing showed I have inherited a gene mutation that puts me at a higher risk for cancer.
Much of 2020 will be like the end of 2019 – filled with a variety of medical appointments – but I’m learning to work around them and I try to keep life as “normal” as possible. When I point our van in the direction of Canton, it almost seems to get to Aultman Hospital on its own now.
Over the past few months, as I have slowly shared my story with others and finally pushed myself to write a column around Thanksgiving, many others have shared with me their own stories or stories of their loved ones. Everyone’s situation is different but many feelings associated with these stories seem the same. I cling to the stories of survival and perseverance that people have been so kind to share with me. I am still surprised at how so many others have gone through or are going through something similar to what I am. Many have fought and are fighting much worse. I am in awe of how brave and strong women, men and children can be when faced with an illness like cancer, whether in themselves or a family member or friend. I am entering a new year with a renewed feeling of thankfulness, and a desire to offer a bit of hope to others.
My parents live in beautiful British Columbia, along the west coast of Canada. My mom began following a blog she recommended to me written by a journalist named Michele Brunoro. She is a TV news anchor and bureau chief and has called her blog “The 3,800 Club.” The significance of the number is that it was estimated that more than 3,800 women in B.C. would be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2019, and Brunoro was among them. I can relate to some of what she was writing and the name of her blog prompted me to look up some Ohio numbers.
The number of new cases of cancer in 2019 in Ohio, according to the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Statistics Center, is startling: 67,150. At the top of the chart, new cases of female breast cancer (although men can get breast cancer as well) for 2019 in Ohio is shown as 10,240. This is followed not too far behind by new lung and bronchus cancer cases (9,680), then colorectum (6,200), prostate (5,340) and melanoma of the skin (3,750). If my situation in Ohio were to reflect the TV news anchor’s in British Columbia, I would be part of “The 10,240 Club.” It’s sad that more than 10,000 women in Ohio this past year were all told they had breast cancer, and they all had to face the fear, questions and worries that come along with each individual situation.
I also follow a Facebook group for women with breast cancer. Many who have been treated with the same kind of chemo concoction I am being treated with said they started losing their hair after the second cycle. Sure enough, it was only a couple of days after the second cycle and my brush was full of more hair than usual. I wasn’t noticeably losing hair yet, but I wanted to get ahead of the game.
Back in the 1980s, like all other good pre-teen Gen Xers, I curled and sprayed and braided and gelled and did everything else to my hair to make it stand out — and up. But as an adult, I don’t really spend much time on it. I guess I’m kind of lucky. My hair has always been thick and naturally wavy. After a shower, I usually just brush through a couple drops of oil to battle some of the frizzies, scrunch up the sides with my hands, and away I go. Gray has begun to make more of a prominent appearance over the last few years. Back in August, my then 11-year-old had a blast when I let her play hairstylist and she colored it with a fun auburn to hide away the silvery strands.
I can’t explain why having my hair shorn off was so emotional for me. My eyes would fill with tears whenever I thought about losing my hair. I knew it wasn’t going to hurt and lopping it off would only take a few minutes. Compared to surgery and therapy and everything else I was going through – losing my hair should be simple and easy. It was frustrating to me that I couldn’t explain even to myself why I was tearful over something so silly and painless. It’s only hair, right? It will grow back.
My husband, Robert, has made this part of the journey easier for me than I can even put into words. I would not have been prepared at all if it weren’t for him. He called up a couple of wig places, and he ordered me super soft hats to sleep in, to go out in, and just wear around the house. He took me to the Wig Style Center next to Aultman Hospital – and we found a wig in no time.
The week before Christmas wasn’t easy, filled with medical appointments and follow-ups. The nurses are all so nice, but always so busy. A nurse named Patty did a great job of distracting me during chemotherapy. Learning I worked for The Dalton Gazette & Kidron News, she told me about her love for antiquing, and visits to MCC Connections, and she recommended some favorite spots in Wooster for shopping and lunch. I advise others going through similar treatments to not to hesitate to tell your doctor about any pains or concerns and keep asking questions. I drink more water than I have ever before, and am trying to eat healthier – though Christmas meant some indulging. Some indulging can be good for the soul and a good mood can only help the healing process. I ended the week with going to get my hair cut that Friday.
Conveniently located next door to the Gazette & News office, Dalton Hair Designs is, as my Mom would say, “a hop, skip and a jump away.”
Owner Kara Clay not only responded in the affirmative when I asked my two questions about shearing my locks and trimming a wig, but she also offered some interesting information.
I was surprised to learn that Dalton Hair Designs is one of the salons that participates in the American Cancer Society’s Wig Bank Program. This program provides free wigs to cancer patients. The program is open to all cancer patients regardless of income or health insurance status, according to the American Cancer Society’s website at cancer.org. Kara has had people come from throughout Wayne County – and beyond – for the free wig program. While it is sad to think about, I wasn’t the first head Kara has had to shave because of the side effects of chemotherapy. Over the years, she has shaved dozens of women’s heads. It’s that common.
Fighting back tears, with all of my hair on the floor around me, I could barely look at my bald head in the mirror. Kara knew what she had to do to make me feel better. She instantly helped to adjust my wig and we put a hat on top that my husband bought me as an early Christmas present. She said I looked like I just walked out of a Hallmark Christmas movie. She made me smile, and most importantly, she made me feel normal.
I think that may be what made the situation emotional for me. I can easily hide surgery scars under clothing. I can keep it all to myself the weeks I’m going through chemotherapy or radiation therapy. I can disguise with a smile when I’m in pain, or feeling sick or tired, or just not feeling myself. But when your hair falls out – rapidly – more effort has to go into trying to look and feel “normal.”
Kara did an amazing job cutting my hair and making me feel better. On my way out the door I bumped in to Katy Biggs. I love how God carefully places people in our paths when we need them most. She took the time to tell me about her daughter who also fought cancer but went through a lot more than I have had to go through. Her daughter sounded like an amazing mother and one of the bravest women out there. I am thankful to everyone who has shared such personal stories with me.
I was overwhelmed with the kind and supportive cards I received last month from Melody Snure, Marie Septer, Mary Ann King and Ann Weaver. I have read their uplifting words over and over and I am thankful that they took the time to write to me after reading my first column. DGKN Publisher Kurt Immler has told me many people have walked in to the Gazette & News office commenting on my column and asking how I’m doing. I can’t say enough how much I appreciate everyone’s kind words, thoughts and prayers. I receive regular texts from a couple of people in town who somehow happen to know exactly when I need a boost.
We all have struggles. We all have challenges. I feel there are many people out there battling much more than I will ever have to face. Many people fight and suffer silently. I feel very fortunate to have the people in my life that I do. I am thankful for my family and friends and for all of my readers. In 2019, I have been blessed with faith, hope and friendships stronger than I ever knew before. I have learned not to take even the littlest joys in life for granted. I hope that all of you feel just as blessed in 2020.
Christina McCune is managing editor of The Dalton Gazette & Kidron News.