Patient StoriesBreast Cancer

A Nest of Hair

Choosing to shave her head gave Michelle Nickol a sense of empowerment over her life as she took matters into her hands and fought back against the hair loss during chemotherapy.
October 2021 Vol 7 No 5
Michelle Nickol
Tucson, Arizona

Although my oncologist told me it might be one of chemotherapy’s side effects, when clumps of my hair started showing up on my pillowcase, in my bathroom sink, and on the driver’s seat of my truck, the first thing I did was cry. This hair shedding was just one more reminder that I was losing control of my body, and my life.

Fight Back

Then a co-worker told me that when her mother began to lose her hair because of chemotherapy, she defiantly chose to fight back, declaring that she would not let cancer take away one more thing. So, she got a buzz cut.

I decided to follow this brave woman’s lead. A friend who knew a local barber took me to her barbershop after it closed for the day. The barber informed me that I was not her first “chemo cut,” in fact, she considered the act of giving these haircuts to be an honor, a personal mission, free of charge.

Sense of Empowerment

Because of her kindness and because having my head shaved was my choice, I felt an unexpected sense of empowerment and calm as she started to cut my hair, although I did cringe a little to see handfuls of it on the floor around her feet. When she turned on the electric clippers, she paused and asked, “You ready?” I was.

The vibration from the clippers made my head hum. She began on one side behind my ear, and worked the clippers toward the center, then repeated the process on the other side. I remembered hearing there’s no way of telling how your hair will grow back. I hoped mine would be thicker, a slightly different color or texture. I remembered seeing a farmer plow a field once. A lot can pass through your mind when your head is being shaved.

An Envelope of Hair

Once it was clear we had gone past the point of no return, the 3 of us joked around about how much money I’d save on shampoo, conditioner, and haircuts. At one point, after she’d intentionally buzzed everything but a small tuft on the back of my head, which she showed me in a handheld mirror, the 3 of us laughed and sang a slightly off-key round of “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna.” Then she buzzed the tuft. After sweeping the floor, she put my hair in an envelope, and gave it to me, along with well-wishes and a good hug.

I was sorry I had not thought to bring a hat along, and feared that as we walked back to the car, people who passed us on the street would stare at me, then quickly turn away with a look of shock on their faces. But no one seemed to notice. I shyly rubbed my hand over my head, and for the first time in my life felt the slightly irregular contours of its terrain.

I lived in a small town in the midst of a ponderosa pine forest, and one of my favorite hiking spots was a few miles from town off an old forest service road. As my friend drove us in that direction, I stuck my head out the window to see how the wind felt on it. It felt pretty good. We turned off and headed down a gravel road, stopping beside a clear-cut opening in the forest. A small stand of fluttering aspens jutted up in the distance on the crest of a hill, like a marker on the landscape.

Bird’s Nest

We climbed the hill and stood beside the trees. I have heard that sometimes birds use hair to strengthen their nests, so I gave my friend a handful from the envelope, and we broadcast my hair, watching as a slight breeze lifted and scattered it around. Some of it disappeared in the distance. Some was caught in the aspen branches and dangled there like thin strands of tinsel.

We stood quietly for a moment, then walked back to the car and headed toward town and the next unknown. I stuck my head out of the window again and cried a little more—only this time, for joy.

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Last modified: April 20, 2022

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