Editorial: She Is Not Her Hair

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Good hair days, bad hair days – we’ve all had them. Whether you don a long mane or sport a cute and edgy cut, a person’s relationship with their hair is a close and enduring one. Marking significant moments in life, an outlet for self-expression or good ol’ adornment, one’s hair can be straightened, curled, colored, teased, put up, put down, pulled to the side, grown or chopped. For better or for worse, its malleability affords us some control over our appearance. A year and a half ago, I voluntarily chopped off my hair as I was about to enter into a new season of life and personal growth. It was a symbolic act that I felt I needed to mark physically to match the change that I felt inside. For some people, changing their hair is not a voluntary act. It happens to them as a result of genetics or a catastrophic health event. This happened to my friend, Carolina, a musician and singer who recently transplanted to DC from Seattle for a year-long internship. 

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When she found out she was diagnosed with a rare form of ovarian cancer at the age of 24, she prepared herself for battle but had to face the eventuality that the battle would take her long, thick hair as a casualty. I sat down with her one chilly but bright afternoon and we talked about what it was like to get the diagnosis at such a young age and walk through the process of treatment. Now in recovery, Carolina shared that hair is certainly a piece of her identity but it certainly isn’t the whole picture or the sole marker of her womanhood. After our chat, we put down our tea and traipsed around the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood. My friend and photographer extraordinaire, Erica captured these fun shots of Carolina and her new do, which is adorable. I mean, crop cuts are all the rage, right?

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One year ago, Carolina sent in her application to a local church’s internship program to intensively learn, serve and work in their music/worship department. Around the same time, she began feeling stomach pains and continued to feel those symptoms for a week. Deciding to have this mysterious pain checked out, Carolina went to the doctor where they conducted an ultrasound and identified a mass. She was told she would need surgery the following day. When the pathology reports came back, Carolina was diagnosed with stage 2B ovarian cancer. While the doctors were able to take out the tumor and cancerous tissues, Carolina was told she would need to undergo a 9-week chemotherapy program.

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If you have a chance to meet Carolina, you will quickly realize three things 1) she is super fun 2) she is an optimist and 3) she has a gorgeous voice (I’m banking that she will sing for you when you meet her). Her optimism and ability to focus on the good things in life helped her deal with the startling news. When asked about the emotions she felt at the time, she said, “I wasn’t at the worst case scenario and thinking my plans and aspirations were thrown out the window even though that could have been the case. My whole experience was surreal in that I was astonished at how much peace was poured out over my life. That’s how I would describe my experience to my family or friends. When I was going through it, it wasn’t the best time and I would have bad days. But I felt that there was this peace poured out over me and I felt protected by God and my family. Being surrounded by people helped pushed me towards knowing that not all was lost.”

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"I was constantly reminded not to take myself out of the game."

Carolina needed an extra dose of that optimism one month into chemotherapy when she lost her hair all at once. Dealing with an infection from another procedure involving the installation of a port underneath her clavicle, she asked her mom to help her brush her hair. Grabbing a knotty bundle, a whole chunk of hair came off and then another. In half an hour, her hair had gone from long and flowing to nothing at all. In a moment of strength and compassion, her mom told her to turn around and not look back as she brushed her hair out. She had her hair buzzed on July 4th and on that same day, she also learned that her longtime hairstylist had secretly collected funds in order to purchase her a wig for the days where she just wanted to be and to blend.

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One year later, Carolina still says that losing her hair was emotionally the hardest part of the treatment. She had to deal with the mental battle of not feeling as pretty. Before, she could act like everything was fine but after losing her hair, she looked and felt like a cancer patient and it represented the battle that was raging inside her body and her mind. Fully realizing that there is a lot more to being a woman than her hair, Carolina also realized the attachments between femininity and hair that she had not realized before. Describing her day to day, “with this sort of thing, you just don’t know what is going to trigger an emotion. You have to be patient and not be too hard on yourself. You’re going to have good days and good moments and you’re going to have bad days and bad moments. It’s just all part of the process.” At the end of the day, she said “Losing your hair is a small price to pay for not having cancer.”

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Her family and friends helped her get through treatment and recovery. Music and chocolate also helped. Some of her favorite bands to listen to were Daft Punk and All Sons & Daughters. Carolina finished treatment last August and three weeks later, she moved to DC. Her hair has since returned in brunette and curly form and has grown to a point where she no longer needs her wig. When taking the wig off for the first time, it was a scary and vulnerable feeling. The next day was better and the day after that became increasingly better although she would say there are still days where she feels bad about it. While it was a longer process to mourn the loss of her hair, it was the last stage of shutting the door on this season of cancer…cancer fought and the battle won.

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With spring in full bloom, I asked Carolina about some of her favorite things at the moment:

  • Favorite Band? Broods
  • Style Icon? Zooey Deschanel for her cute and simple outfits and Victoria Beckham for her chic and classy dress.
  • What makes you smile? Hilarious people…even if they’re acting dumb
  • One item on your bucket list? Coldplay concert
  • Favorite spot in DC? No declaration thus far.
  • Favorite spot in the whole wide world? Pike Place Market in Seattle.

The last question I posed to Carolina was if she had any advice for someone going through something similar. Her advice was to press into relationship with God. It was the only thing that made sense to her while she was going through something as uncertain and scary as cancer. Much thanks to Carolina for leading a life of bravery and optimism as she continues to rock her internship and share her beautiful gifts with so many. You are an inspiration. Thanks also goes to Erica Baker for capturing the light and her subjects in a way that only she can do.