The mirror that cancer holds up

Mirrors. Most times I love them but sometimes I hate them.

On good days, they remind me that I’m having a great hair day, my make-up looks good and it gives me that extra boost of confidence I need to get through the day. On bad days, it highlights my flaws. A bad outfit, a face blemish, insecurities or a bad mood- in my mind, the negativity seeping through and leaking into my outward appearance.

Having cancer changes your relationship with mirrors, figuratively and literally. It’s like someone holding up a giant magnifying mirror in your face, forcing you to look deep into it. It’s a side effect the doctors don’t mention and let me tell you- it’s a dark place and probably one of the hardest ones to deal with. Cancer makes you vulnerable – stripping you down to your very core and forcing you to face any and all issues that you’ve pushed or buried in the past.

As vain and embarrassing as it is for me to admit this, when I found out I had cancer, I came home and sat in front of my mirror. I vividly remember looking at my hair and eyebrows and thinking – Oh no! I am going to lose all my hair! I’m going to look so ugly.

Having cancer, doing chemo, it’s all more or less manageable (on good days). It’s the looking sick part that I have issues with, a sentiment I’m sure many fellow fighters and survivors can echo. Even on days when I feel all right, there’s no escaping or forgetting it. The minute I look into a mirror, the cancer is there- staring back at me. It mocks me in the form of my aged, peeling skin, sometimes swollen face, chemo rashes, sparse lashes/brows and the telltale mark of (most) chemo patients – the bald head. No matter how good you feel on the inside, on the outside, cancer is stamped across your forehead (or more like your bald head), for the world to see. Hair loss has been the worst for me to deal with. No matter how good I was feeling, it still depressed me when I saw my reflection – a constant reminder that I have cancer.

I’ve always viewed clothes and make up as extensions of my inner beauty, therefore I’ve always dressed up for no one else but myself. I believe in being well put together but I’m also horribly lazy with my beauty regimen so I’ve gotten really good at getting myself together really fast. I can put on false eyelashes in record speed like you wouldn’t believe! On days when I need an extra boost of confidence – I will up the ante. After all, if you feel beautiful, you will surely project beautiful. Until I lost my hair, I never realized how much I relied on it as part of my confidence armor. For a lot of women (and some men), your hair could be your “thing” – and your looks a big part of your identify. So on a Wednesday, 15 days after my first chemo session, I started losing what I thought, was a big part of myself. Now what?

In a world so focused on outward beauty, we often forget how important inner beauty is. I’ve met some of the most physically beautiful people with the ugliest personalities as well as seen people become more physically beautiful because their inner beauty shined so brightly.  To be truly beautiful, one needs to be beautiful inside and out.

I knew hair loss was inevitable with this type of chemo so ever since I was diagnosed, I started to mentally prepare myself for it. I looked into cold caps (not worth the ROI for me), read countless blogs, talked to doctors and survivors, got myself wigs and hats, cut my hair short and watched a lot of Youtube chemo hair loss videos (totally creeped me out.) As “prepared” as you try to be, nothing prepares you for the mind fuck of waiting for it to happen, or for when you run your hand through your hair and strands upon strands come out. That morning, I just stood there, head over the sink- and watched my hair shed. After what felt like hours of that entrancing (and gross) activity, I slowly gathered myself, pinned my hair up, and went about my day.

A couple girlfriends flew in from San Francisco that day and we spent a lovely afternoon together. After they left, I unpinned my hair, and strands rained down again in the sink. I decided I could either wait it out- continue the anxiety, or I could control what I could control and shave it all off.

I asked my mom if she could help me and we embarked on the strangest mother/daughter activity to date. I thought I’d get emotional, cry, or get more anxious. But none of the above happened. When the clippers came and zoomed off my hair, I felt a strange sense of relief. Months of anxiety fell to the wayside, along with my dark locks.

I looked in the mirror and my first instinct was to laugh- at how ridiculous I looked and how weird this disease was. My mom couldn’t stop laughing either and I now look back on it as a bonding moment instead of the reality of what was happening. Sometimes, laughter really is the best medicine.

It was in that moment that I realized cancer has the ability to take away a lot of things. Your control, health, freedom, independence, and looks, to name a few. But reality is, most of that is temporary. As I’m going through this journey, I’m also realizing all the things that cancer can’t take or control. It cannot take away my inner beauty, my ability to love, to stay hopeful, to have a positive outlook, to summon courage, and most importantly, it cannot take away my sense of humor (thanks, dad for that gene). When you are stripped down to nothing, sometimes all you can do is just laugh at the situation, control what you can control and move on.  

The below picture is the hardest one for me to share thus far because there is so much going on in it. There’s a part of me that looks at it and is sad. I’m bald in it and I know I will look sicker in months to come before I look better again. The other part of me looks at it and I can’t help but laugh and be a little bit proud. I got ahead of the anxiety by controlling what I could and shaving my head. Additionally, it also reminds me of a picture I once saw of myself when I was a baby that always made me laugh. In Chinese tradition, it’s customary to shave a child’s head after their first birthday. It helps with making their hair grow thicker, or something like that. Nevertheless, my mom became thoroughly nostalgic after shaving my head because it reminded her of that time. Sure enough, she dug up that old photo of me, freshly shaved after my 1st birthday, and we decided to recreate the look.

Even though I’m still sad when I look into the mirror sometimes, this photo reminds me that it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way.  Although cancer is robbing me of so many things at the moment, I still have my ability to control what I can control and change the outcome of what I see reflected there. That’s something cancer can’t ever take away from me.

What was once a harsh mirror that cancer  forced on me –  like all else, with the bad, also comes the good. Going through something like this and being forced to face and deal with your worst insecurities, you also become comfortable with the vulnerability and surprised with the depths of emotions you uncover. Truly beautiful depths of humility, compassion, gratitude, and love.

I’m sure in the days to come I will occasionally be dragged back to those dark places by my reflection. But on those days, I will remember that I am loved by so many people, flaws and all. I will remember that I have amazing parents, incredible friends and the innate desire to inspire others in everything I do. I will always try be proud of who I see in the mirror going forward because most importantly, knowing and being comfortable with who you are is truly the most beautiful thing of all. There will never again be anything reflected there that a little (okay, a lot of) make-up, a wig and some good lighting can’t fix.



2 thoughts on “The mirror that cancer holds up

  1. I can relate to so much of this! The weird creepy way I was engrossed by hair falling out in clumps. The need to take control by shaving it. And the way my mother felt once she saw me. I was bald as a baby, and it brought her right back to that moment. It’s beautiful to read your entries which articulate so many of the thoughts that have flitted through my mind over the past few months. Keep fighting, fellow warrior!!


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