By Mary Rae Smith
Looking back, my girlfriend was ready for this. I wasn’t sure I was. One day she
announced, “Let’s go buy a wig.”
Driven by an image of impending baldness, I went with her to the local “head
shop” to try on wigs. This was a new world for me, the world of Raquel Welsh and her
colleagues – the world of wigs - long hair, short hair, curly hair, red hair, blond hair and
The trying on was fun. Nothing was at stake. I eventually found the perfect fit to
match my already perfect head of hair. I bought it and away it went into the closet – to
await the day when it might come in handy. Like a good Girl Scout, I was prepared.
Actually, this story begins several months before, at my doctor’s office. Her
receptionist called, “Please schedule an appointment, the doctor wants to see you.”
Looking forward to the results of my annual physical, I arrived at the appointed time.
After the usual wait I was ushered into her office. A tall and lovely young woman, she
sat down next to me. This was not the usual protocol for office visits. She made eye
contact and spoke in a whisper, “Your chest x-ray shows a golf ball size ‘something’ in
your right lung.”
My hair stood at attention. The doctor said, “Hopefully, this tumor will be non-
malignant and you won’t need to worry. At worst, you will look back a year from now,
and think of it all as just a nightmare, one that you survived and is over.” The thought of
waking up from this nightmare stayed with me throughout the office visit. That I will
“survive and it will be only a memory” - became words to live by.
“Let’s just take it a step at a time,” the physician added.
The next few days unfolded like a suspense novel.
Chapter 1, the CAT scan. “Yes, you have a golf ball in there and it is most likely
malignant. Let’s get a biopsy.”
Chapter 2, the Biopsy, confirms. “Yes it is malignant. You need a PET scan.”
Chapter 3, the PET scan is in 3D. As I later learned, this was a helpful tool for the
Chapter 4 – I saw the surgeon. I handed him the PET scan results, now on a disk.
Placing the disk in his computer, he took me on a virtual tour of my right lung, indicating
points of interest along the way.
The tumor planted itself in the upper lobe of the right lung. With luck we could
remove it all without having to break through the lung wall. This was a major
consideration. If it was not touching the wall, then he could remove it and I would be
cured. If it was touching the wall, the surgery would be more drastic requiring removal
of surrounding muscle tissue and perhaps some bone. It also raised the level of future
The surgeon declared, “Yes, we can operate. However, I recommend chemo
after. If it were my mother I’d make sure she had chemo – as a preventive measure.”
But I was thinking, “What about my hair?”
Chapter 5, I saw the oncologist. Yes, she agreed. If it hadn’t broken through the
wall, you would be cured. That settled it. I fast tracked through more blood work,
respiratory and heart tests and was declared a good candidate for surgery.
Chapter 6, the surgery was scheduled. One week later I showed up at the hospital
scrubbed clean from head to toe, my hair shining. I was as ready as I would ever be,
armed with my son on one side and my daughter on the other.
My children anxiously accompanied me to the surgical prep suite, assured me all
would be well and kissed me goodbye. While they returned to the waiting room for their
vigil, the anesthesiologist rendered me unconscious. Four hours later I was out of
surgery and out of it.
In the end, they didn’t have to go through the wall. I am a cured Stage II. I am
My stay in the hospital was predictably painful, and my hair was dirty. After
eight days I was released. My daughter is a nurse. At home, her mission was to make
sure I did not get hooked on Oxycontin. She watched me like a hawk lest I take too many
or too frequently. Her mission was successful. She helped me wash my hair.
I still had all my hair. I took good care of it. Chemo started a month later once I
recovered from surgery and had been to the hairdresser. I had 10 million questions.
“What is this chemo? What will it feel like? Will I throw up? Will I be able to work?
Will I really lose my hair?”
It was what it was. Luckily for me, between the new meds to help prevent nausea
and a schedule that allowed me to rest the weekend after, I was able to go to work
through the duration. I managed to handle it. However, I could not handle my hair.
After two chemo sessions, my hair hurt. This was a new sensation. Then it
started falling out. The moment of truth arrived. To shave or not to shave?
My 40-year old son offered to do the deed. The boy he once was is now a well
muscled 6 foot tall man. The product of 13 years in the US Navy, he is not the gentle
type. But he is all heart. I sat in a chair in the middle of the kitchen. He plugged in his
electric razor. Then we drank wine, shaving the edges off reality, until we were ready.
Finally, his courage torqued up, he touched the razor to my head. But, I cringed and
“I can’t handle it,” I exclaimed. “It hurts too much.”
My son responded, “I have a solution. I will give you a short hair cut – not a
shave. Then what hair is left can fall out when it wants. No big deal. So simple.” And
that’s what we did.
Since then, I was a bald woman armed with my trusty wig to cover all evil. The
wig was as close a match as I could find for the hair I used to have: medium length,
brown and wavy. I looked in the mirror and thought, “See? Nothing’s changed. The
Chemo was no walk in the park nor was it the nightmare one would imagine. It
did, however, take its toll on my body. Every cold germ within ten miles desired me.
Who could imagine this super healthy body reduced to an immunological disaster?
Welcome to the world of hyper antibiotics and steroids.
As the chemo took its course, I told myself, “I live an otherwise normal life. Me
and my wig.” Others thought chemo was traumatic. The truth about chemo was that you
just endured it. Then life would fall back together. All would be well.
I could handle cancer. But, I could not handle baldness. I wore the wig in public.
At home, I wore scarves. I couldn’t stand in front of a mirror. My daughter shaved the
back of her head in solidarity. Still, I felt like a thing, totally undesirable, sexless. Who
would even want to look at a bald woman, let alone romance her?
But in the middle of this, I had the joy of a brief romantic encounter. One day,
while alone with my suitor, in a much anticipated moment of reaffirmation, of loving, the
first exploratory touching, he lifted my shirt up and over my head and dropped it to the
floor. I closed my eyes and lost myself. In the midst of the kisses, caresses and probing,
I opened my eyes for a second and look downed.
That’s when I saw it. The wig landed on the floor, caught up in the folds of my
shirt. And there I stood – bald in all my romantic glory - a wigless wonder.
I considered snatching the wig and making a run for the door. But being a true
gentleman, he gracefully ignored my exposure and humiliation. Thankfully, the moment
passed as does our time. After we prepared to leave and went our separate ways, I placed
the wig upon my head.
The chemo ended. Two months passed and I saw the stubbly beginnings of new
hair. Could it be that it would soon be over? Several more months passed and I had a
newly grown head of very short curly grey hair. Grey and curly was quite a turn of
events. I continued to wear the wig bolstered by the fact that it was now my comfortable
The day arrived when a bold decision was at hand. “Do I go grey? Do I shed the
wig to reveal this new me? Do I reveal my soul?” I asked around.
The consensus was yes, “Do it! - Short grey hair is stylish and youthful.”
I decided to take the risk. A little shaky, I appeared at the office with my new
“do”. A few people shied away, but for the most part it went well.
I gradually assumed the new me and life went on. I survived the nightmare, now
a memory. Several years later, here I am. Although the curly went away, I am the sexy
older lady with the short grey hair, out and about, and glad to be.
Dedicated to my children, Alexander and Ariana, and the physicians and staff associated
with Mercy Hospital, Miami, FL.
A long time Miami resident, Mary Rae Smith, BFA (Ohio Wesleyan), MA & MSW (SUNY
Stony Brook) is an artist, pilot, businesswoman and writer from New York City. In
November 2010 she appeared in Lip Service: Off the Record and is a member of the
South Florida Writer’s Association.