It’s the weight of the C-word that does it.
Yet when they told me I was now a member of that group I was, you’ll be surprised to know, pretty much expecting it. I hadn’t been feeling well the week before and my body had felt different. I was flu-ish but not. I had stomach pains but not quite. I just couldn’t get comfortable in myself. Of course, I’m not suggesting these are cancer-like symptoms. Are there any? So, sure, maybe it was just a coincidence but it was still the reason I staggered out of bed that day and dragged myself to the bathroom. I stared in the mirror and almost by accident my hand brushed my left breast. In a split second, something registered. I felt it. An unfamiliar feel. The truth is I know my lumps and bumps because I’ve been checking my breasts for quite a long time now. After all, my generation was told to do self-examinations so I’ve been feeling around for the best part of my life. I just knew. I couldn’t stop thinking about it either, yet never before had I suspected I had cancer. I got a further sign the next Monday when a reminder in the post said I was due for a mammogram. I called immediately and took the first available appointment.
There was only about a week between the examination and confirmation of my diagnosis. The weekend before I was on a delicious boat-trip up and down the Thames organised by Yvonne Taylor as one of her Sunday Happy Day (SHD) events. I recall then thinking I should make the most of this. My life was on temporary hold, so I gyrated and drank and soaked up the London views with the joy of being in fun company. In any case, it is the most comfortable way in which you can drink red wine and suffer hot flushes since leaning into the cool breeze with loud pumping music and a truly crazy dancing crowd, is the perfect antidote. I did confide in Judea Bogle, who was staggering around with me in the name of dancing, and who herself, is an inspirational spinal-cancer-survivor. Naturally I felt able to tell this special friend of mine that I was going to be diagnosed with breast cancer in a few days.
It’s funny, although I did feel the burden of it all, I still felt somehow relieved when the news was finally delivered. I didn’t collapse in a heap. The world didn’t turn to stone and to be honest, my body didn’t feel any different just because the doctor confirmed I had cancer. Ironically, I felt well now though I was warned I had up to two years to live if I didn’t take their treatment. Plus, I had Stage Two which felt like mere words at the time though I now associate it with meaning my lymph nodes were possibly compromised. Indeed, they were. Yet, on another level, I felt quite liberated, for at that moment, I learned something crucial about myself. I wasn’t afraid to die. That was huge. That in itself was a revelation.
I’ve heard it said many times over, that losing one’s dignity is the real concern. It’s not so much about dying as it is about how one does it. So, it is true that sometimes, there are worse things than death. Sometimes. Perversely, that little insight shattered my fears about so much where lots of molecules had accumulated over the years to form a perceived mental tsunami in the face of death. Here was the closest I had come to it and yet I was still standing.
There is something else. For a second, the thought of dying conjured up a sense of relief from worrying about Africa, racism, the planet and the senseless slaughter of animals. Every single day I despair about these things and my sense of helplessness to affect change only compounds a never-ending cycle of worry. Suddenly the thought of death relieved me of those responsibilities. I realise it sounds awful, cowardly perhaps. Certainly, I don’t mean to devalue the gratitude I feel towards our British health system, the NHS, as well as that of my ancestors who I also credit my survival. No, I don’t want to do that.
Besides I had lots of things to complete even if I was going to die. For a start, I didn’t want to die being a nearly-doctor. To be so close and yet never, well I couldn’t bear that. Who wants to be just near? With much gratitude to my supervisor Professor Rosalyn George and Professor Les Back my viva was brought forward to the early sessions of my chemotherapy without which I couldn’t have completed. For two days, I felt amazing that that leviathan of a PhD was finally behind me.
So, no, it wasn’t the initial discovery of a lump, the confirmed diagnosis, or the 2-year limit to my life if without treatment, nor the worry that I might not become a doctor in time that got to me. What made me realise that I was truly sick was when I first saw patches of baldness through my hair.
My long black locs with only speckles of grey that reached well over my shoulders were now ten years old. In my teaching capacity, I tended to tie them back so after only two cycles of chemo I noticed bald patches on one side. It didn’t even occur to me. I did think that it was odd and perhaps something I had not noticed before, and I did keep staring, but I still did not immediately make the link. Looking back the preparation of my viva and worrying about having a cold just before it, probably didn’t help so it was two days later while I was still floating around on Dr Marlene-air, that it all dawned on me.
I had just come home from a radio interview and staring in that same bathroom mirror that had caused all the trouble in the first place, I saw even more patches now on both sides where my hair once was. That same mirror witnessed the penny-drop. I was losing my precious locs and despite the warnings I had been given, I had not expected it. I was shocked, first that it should happen to me at all and, secondly that it should begin so quickly after just two chemo sessions.
I was supposed to be at work the following day and my boss was going to arrange celebrations but suddenly I hit a pit of utter despair like no other and I was truly at my wit’s end. I cried alone but loud from a depth within me I rarely go to or had heard. I felt wretched. I became scared of the mirror. I was also scared to put my head on the pillow. At night I lay still, lying flat on my back with my eyes wide open trying not to move fearful that in the morning my locs would be detached, stuck in sweat and betrayal. Maybe my worries were exaggerated yet in the morning, it took all my strength to walk towards the mirror and face it. I cannot find the words to articulate just how petrifying this felt. I realised the soreness I had been ignoring from my scalp was another indication. Most of my locs were still there but they were thinning quickly so a slight pull told me my head was tender and it would not take much for them to fall out. They felt much heavier to hold now and this reflected a sense of my new weak body. My locs weren’t betraying me, I was betraying them.
Then I saw something else that horrified me. I stared hard into the mirror in tears and with disbelief saw that this loss of hair came with a loss of myself as a woman. Ironically, there was a time growing up as a girl that I did not want to become a woman. I was a proud tomboy who loved playing football and would happily pull the head off dolls because they just didn’t seem to do anything. I was once depressed at the thought of having to be ‘a frilly woman’ to meet the societal needs of me. Yet here I was, no longer certain of myself without those symbols that were entirely wrapped-up in femininity and strength and sexiness that I had grown to love about myself. I saw no sexiness when I looked back. I looked old, plain and plainer. Ten, fifteen years smothered me in the space of about seven days of hair loss and chemotherapy.
Why did hair loss trigger so much?
I don’t know exactly but I do know it was wrapped up in the loss of dignity. That is why this was the moment when I crossed over and experienced the worse of being a cancer patient. I was a woman who showed less grief for cancer in my breast than that for the loss of my hair. I still cannot quite fathom that. I accept because I have to, that my womanhood seemed more correlated to my hair than it was with my bosom, my body. Maybe if I had lost sensations in my nipples it would have been different? Maybe it was because I didn’t have a mastectomy for I truly don’t want to ignore the unique and complex emotions those mastectomies must generate for many women. Not all.
In any event, that Sunday evening, when I first noticed, I got advice to shave my locs off from some, and to keep them on from others. Either way, a lack of courage now gripped me so tightly the burden of shame deepened. Initially, this had me pile on more clothes to help me disappear wanting to withdraw from a world that required women to be ‘attractive’ for I considered I had lost membership to such ‘beauty privileges’. Before that, I didn’t consciously appreciate that I was even carrying such fortunes. My indulgence in thinking of myself as an outsider overlooked the advantages I have had with my looks and the beauty of my body. Now, feeling pushed out, it became clear with even my hair not being able to save me, or so I reasoned at the time.
I knew there was a barber’s shop across the road so eventually, I covered my head one morning and asked for an early appointment before work. This was going to be ‘the day’ except I waited for an hour before giving up and bursting into tears again. He wasn’t going to show up in time, they didn’t know me, and I felt unable to explain the urgency. I left in yet another utter mess to get to work.
That particular day, I wore a thick Newspaper boys cap but it was steaming hot in my seminar room. Carrying my shame like a handbag accessory, I allowed the sweat to trickle down my face to look like I had no inner thermostat. I carried on teaching while refusing to acknowledge my ridiculous state despite my obvious discomfort. Luckily the students at St Mary’s University were far too polite to say anything.
Still, on my way home that night, I was unhappy. I remember getting off at Streatham Hill Station and deciding that I had to do something. As if from the Gods, a black barber and locs-smith were just closing but this time, I told Garfield my story. He saw my desperation because he immediately re-opened and let me in. He sat me in the chair, I closed my eyes and honestly, I just felt sheer relief when I heard his scissors doing their magic. Then he washed what was left before I felt the razor gliding over my scalp. I didn’t look up until he finished and on first sight, I did not see me. I peeped in hope again and this time my spirit stared right back relaxed and smiling! I felt completely lifted. Then he rubbed some soothing natural moisturiser into my newly bald head and I miraculously walked away from that Marlene. It was as if I had exchanged old friendly but leaking shoes, for a dryer pair. He refused to take payment from me to. I left him my locs.
I know some people sow old locs back into fresh hair but for me, this felt like a spiritual misalignment. I knew I would not be able to go back to being what I was no longer. My cancer and chemo journey had in many ways only just begun and removing my hair was to clear the way, to take back control so to be able to cope with the next stages. I simply could not envisage putting dead hair, now my past into it my future.
When I walked out of his shop I felt amazingly transformed. I walked with much greater ease. I had a spring in my step and there were no more tears. I didn’t care about whether my bald head was or wasn’t the right shape because this was the only one I had. It was right because I felt my liberation directly from it. For the first time since feeling the depth of despair, I was at my highest. Higher than I had been for passing the viva that had taken me ten years to complete. Higher than anything thus far in the cancer process.
As I write, two years later, I have not experienced that level of trauma since. My hair now has more grey though my locs have nearly returned. Even on reflection, the feelings around my hair and my womanhood seem irrational and disproportionate. Yet when I remember my initial concerns for dignity over death, I kind of get it. Not that I think hair and our false senses of womanness should be considerations for dying in moments of such despair. How ridiculous that that could even be contemplated.
Our ideas of what it is to be a woman of beauty, of substance and strength cannot follow what society offers us. The models of womanhood are simply too weak to save us especially when we need to pull on that ancestral warrior strength that lives on, though often lies dormant within us. It is up to us to reclaim it.
We also know that other versions of femininity and womanhood do not work for us when they do not belong to us. I know this challenge affects all women though I speak to black women in particular and to the necessity to define our sexiness and power for, and by ourselves. I tell you nothing new to say if we don’t do that, others will do it for us, and always to our detriment.
As an aesthetic expression of the body, hair should not be significant and certainly not greater than the physical, the nurturing, the sheer internal functions, the entire embodiment of ourselves as African black women. My hair loss revealed to me something new about who I was. It was a much deeper more powerful Marlene I had only sensed but not known how to connect with before. Now I know her. I would never go back because I feel like I’ve got a more direct link to the power of my spirit. I feel more connected to the voices of my ancestors. I am not saying it is everything but I am more powerful, sexier and more truthful to myself than I ever was before I lost my hair.
So, to all my mothers, sisters and daughters that have suffered any form of cancer, also to my brothers feeling isolated for suffering from breast cancer as men, and to all those currently undergoing cancer treatment, I write for you with love and care.
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