Armpit Wig

If you read my last post, “Cold Cap: From Rapunzel to Rambo,” you will know that I shaved my head in early March after trying out a number of different hair lengths. Hard to believe that I have been bald for that long already. Harder still to believe that I will be bald for my fortieth birthday on May 12. Not exactly what I had in mind when I thought about “fabulous at forty.” I need me a Lady Gaga “do” right quick. After I post today maybe I’ll run out and buy a light pink bob with fringe (that’s Breeteesh for bangs).

Before chopping my hair for the first time after my surgery, I began to contemplate a wig. I figured I would wear scarves most of the time (which I do) but it is nice to have a back-up plan should one want hair.

I asked around. Everyone recommended synthetic hair. Human hair is very expensive and you have to style it (i.e. wash and condition it, blow it dry and then make it be-have, baby), whereas synthetic hair is low-maintenance, requires less washing and will snap back into shape as it dries naturally on its wig stand. You don’t want to blow-dry a synthetic wig. It might melt.

With both kinds there are limitations. But a good synthetic wig can look pretty realistic.

My wonderful, kind and generous friend Kate had flown over from the States to accompany me to my first chemo, after which I felt okay. So we decided to have a “fun with cancer” day and go wig shopping right after treatment and lunch.

We cabbed it to a tiny establishment in Kensington touted as the go-to place for chemo patients desirous of a wig. They had a good selection and a nice saleswoman helped me try on many different styles and colours.

What not to buy became clear pretty quickly. I have a rather small forehead, so a heavy fringe (you should know this word by now if you have been paying attention) didn’t suit me. Also a no-no was anything too dark as it washed me out — not a good look when one is a cancer patient.

I felt a little bit like Goldilocks on the first two tries, except that I wasn’t in a house of bears and I didn’t have curly gold locks and I wasn’t eating porridge. Nothing was quite right. I just wasn’t feeling it. Too short and helmet-y made me look like a soccer mom (not my thing, really). Too long dragged my face down and wasn’t practical. About chin length seemed to work well…

We finally appeared to strike gold, or rather copper, when I tried on a chin-length ginger (that’s Limey for red head) number with great movement. But when they pulled out the same wig in the nice rich brown colour I wanted, it was slightly shorter and sort of poufed out at the wrong place. Foiled again. At this point I had had enough and was starting to get frustrated. Also, I began to feel tired from the chemo and all the decision making. If you think that a trip to the department store to buy new skinny jeans is tiring try purchasing new hair after chemo. It’s really a bit draining.

So we packed it in and went home. Wigless.

The next morning I had more surgery to install a portacath into one of the major arteries in my chest so that chemo going forward could be administered via the port. This avoids damage to the veins in the arm, which can happen after repeated treatments, so lethal is the shit they pump into you. Following that I was too sore and tired to go wig shopping again anytime soon and the next day, Kate had to fly back. So there I was, still without a wig and on my own.

After a few days I felt better and was back at it. I went to a well-known major department store. They sold wigs and hairpieces in two places, on the ground floor and in their posh salon, upstairs. I decided after my initial disappointment and frustration to think outside the box and try some wigs that didn’t really resemble my real hair. Trying too hard to match it didn’t seem to be working out for a couple of reasons. For one, synthetic wigs are mostly straight, whereas my own hair is wavy. They had some wavy ones but they looked pretty 80s and were lame. Also, getting the same colour is an impossibility.

Anyhow, I decided I was approaching it wrong and needed to have more fun with the process. I tried on a platinum blonde Marilyn Monroe (it was pretty hot, actually). “Happy birthday, Mr. President…” I tried on a human hair brunette wig just for shits and giggles, but the hair was very thick — probably of Indian origin — and it just looked weird on me. I liked a dark red one, definitely a contender, even in the red, but not enough to buy it.

I have to admit I have always had a platonic crush on Ginger from Gilligan’s Island. She had great jugs and was such a tease (did the Professor ever get on that?). So something kept drawing me to the red ones.
But I wasn’t quite sure/ready so I noted the style number and went upstairs. When I got to the salon it was the wig lady’s day off so I tried on a couple half-heartedly, including a severe salt and pepper bob which made me look about 50, and another red number. Then I made an appointment with the wig specialist for the very next day.

That morning was a Thursday and I began the day with a visit to my plastic surgeon for a little instaboob (see the end of my blog entitled Boob Retrospective if that doesn’t make sense).  I returned to the store with my husband in tow. The wig lady was good. She was a stylist and had worked in the industry for years, including on fashion shoots, and then developed an interest in helping cancer patients with alopecia when her own mother was diagnosed. She sized me up and pulled out three or four styles she thought would suit me. I tried on yet another red number, shoulder length with light fringe and long layers. Great colour and movement, but not sure. Then she whipped out a very chic, chin-length deep brunette bob. I put it on. I posed. I became European. I became… Gabriella. I envisioned myself strolling down the street in Florence with a large Prada bag and a small dog, nodding to the men who were blowing kisses and whistling as I passed. Che bella

It was by far the best one I had tried on and, as the wig lady pointed out, it was “me” even if it wasn’t really me. My husband didn’t like it at first, but when I tried on some others and then reemerged with it he came around. So I bid him ciao and set about making my purchase. I got the works. Wig stand, special brush and Revlon shampoo and conditioner for synthetic hair. The wig lady took me downstairs to get the VAT off my purchase — I had to fill out a form that said I’d had a mastectomy and voilà, VAT-free wig. I ought to get something out of this, no?

To celebrate I bought some new make-up and by then I was so high I practically skipped out the door. On the tube I came up with a new MasterCard commercial to sum up my day:

Stylish new wig: £383
New NARS make-up: £85
Bigger tits in 60 seconds: Priceless

I went to the girls’ school to pick up Isabel and her pals and bring them to hip-hop class. I tried on Gabriella in the locker room at the hip-hop place and a friend snapped a pic.

That evening when I got home, I assembled the wig stand and opened the shiny box containing my new wig.

Something was not right.

What was that smell? I looked around the room, inhaled again. I sniffed my armpit. Nope, it was not I. I looked down at Gabriella. Could it be? No….

I picked her up, had a sniff. Oh, fuck. Gabriella smelled strongly of armpit. And not my armpit, mind you. Someone else’s armpit. Definitely female, due to the slight undertone of musky perfume. I frantically turned her around in my hands and inhaled every inch. The offending areas were the crown and down the right side.

The horror, the horror!

My mind was racing. “What the hell am I going to do?” I thought. I tried to think of a tactful way to phone the store and explain that my brand new wig smelled just like armpit, but not my armpit. To a British person. I considered saying nothing and washing Gabriella to see if the smell would come out. But what if I removed the tag and that didn’t work? Then they might accuse me of imparting the armpit smell myself. Maybe they would think I was into something kinky and was wearing the wig in the wrong place. I decided to sleep on it, my buzz from the day having been thoroughly killed.

The next morning I decided to come clean. I called the salon and thankfully reached the wig lady. “Er,” I stammered, “I have a sort of a strange issue that I need to discuss with you.” I explained that although I was thrilled with my purchase, I had gotten the wig home and noticed a peculiar odour emanating from it. I held my breath. “Oh bring it right in,” she responded. “I’ll take care of it.” Phew. She said she would either have it cleaned or get me a new wig, which might take over a week if it wasn’t in stock. I felt hot prickles go up my back as I recalled my experience at the first wig shop where the “same” wig did not fall the same way as the first one. I feared I might never see Gabriella again. And would have to start all over.

But that afternoon I took her back and handed her over. I left. Wigless again. I felt I had lost a good friend.

A week later I got the call. It was the wig lady. Gabriella was ready for pick up. She had gone back to headquarters and been washed and styled by their top stylist. I smiled.

The next day my friend, Susan, a terrific gal and a fellow Houstonian (I was born there), emailed with intentions of visiting that very store and did I need anything? I hesitated. “Well, actually,” I wrote, “my wig is ready to be picked up. But the thing is, you would have to smell it before you leave the store, you know, to make sure that it is really clean and fresh.” I bit my lip. Maybe this was too much to ask of a friend, even a very close friend. “I’ll do it,” she wrote. Hot damn.

She emailed once she had the goods in hand. “So, did you smell it?” I asked. “Oh yeah,” she wrote. “I smelled it so hard I probably got snot on it.” “As long as it is your snot,” I replied. “I’ll do a DNA swab when you get here.”

Now that, people, is a true friend. It just doesn’t get any better than that.

The doorbell rang. It was Susan. She handed Gabriella over. I lifted the lid and took a whiff. Fresh and clean and completely armpit-free.

So the morning after we shaved my head I put on Gabriella and left the house. I went to lunch, alone, at Le Pain Quotidien on Marylebone High Street. Leaving the house with a wig on and nothing under it for the first time was a strange experience. I kept having to remember to move my neck. “Oh God,” I thought. “Everyone knows. Everyone knows I am wearing a wig.” I tried to ignore these concerns and ordered. Then I struck up a conversation with a nice young couple who had a new baby. I reminisced about my girls when they were babies. “How old are they now?” The man asked. “Five and seven,” I said. “Oh you must have been really young when you had them,” he responded.

Dude, you just made my day. Made me feel like we can kill it, me and Gabriella together.

Cold Cap: From Rapunzel to Rambo

Once we know I need chemo, I meet with my oncologist for the second time. He’s an extremely personable and energetic Kiwi at one of the top places in London. He informs me that they have these “really great” cold caps that you can use throughout chemo to try and keep your hair. He looks at my thick wavy mane and determines I am an excellent candidate.

Afternoon tea at the Athenaeum

“Get yourself a bob,” he twangs. “With all that hair piled on top of your head the cold will never reach your scalp and it won’t work.”

Okay. So I decide to chop it. I had had long hair for well over ten years because the last time I cut it short was when I was a summer associate in Paris. I take the tube to my Hampstead hairdresser, waltz in and blurt out “hi I have cancer and need chemo so you have to chop off my hair.” Followed by a toothy smile.

He looks at me, pauses briefly, sighs and then sets to it. Very cool. No drama.

There is something liberating about cutting your hair and knowing that it won’t really matter if you aren’t thrilled with the results. You have to do it so you do it. And well, the ends were a little crunchy from years of highlighting and dyeing to conceal a generous sprinkling of salt in my pepper.

I emerge from the salon, the new me. Send pics around and everyone claims to like it — even prefer it — to my old hair (I hope later the same is said about my new vs. my old boobs but as we know from my last post that’s a tall order).  But I digress…

I consider the cold cap. How it works is: they put a plastic cap with below freezing liquid in it on your head and this reduces blood flow to the area which prevents the chemo from reaching the hair follicles. I am told best case scenario my hair will probably thin at least 20% even with the cold cap.

I conduct personal research.

Of my cancer buddies who tried it, each gave up after one or two tries because (a) it was excruciating to have a below freezing cap on your head for hours (shocker) and it gave them migraines and/or (b) the smell of the conditioner they slathered on to prevent the cap from sticking to the hair nauseated them (delightful).

Chemo for me consists of four doses of AC (doxorubicin a/k/a “the red devil” and cyclophosphamide) followed by four doses of Taxol, each given every two weeks on a dose dense regime. So sixteen weeks of treatment in all.

Here’s the catch: if the cold cap works and I retain a good amount of hair through the first half of treatment, I will have to switch to a weekly dose of Taxol for the second half and tack on four extra weeks. Why? Because Taxol when given biweekly is done on a slow drip over three hours and you cannot tolerate the cold cap for that long.

Then my friend Beth raises the possibility of a scalp metastasis if the chemo drugs do not reach the scalp. Shit.

I ask three top oncologists on two continents about this possibility. They say that scalp metastases are rare but it is a theoretical risk.

I do some math:

Freezing cold thing on my head (with loads of icky-smelling conditioner) + 12 weekly treatments vs. 4 biweekly for 2nd half of chemo + possibility hair will fall out anyway + possibility of not killing some little fucker hiding out in my scalp = NO WAY JOSE.

Sorry, but it just isn’t the honey badger way.

I inform my oncologist and the nurses at the chemo treatment suite that, no, in fact, I do not wish to try the cold cap. “Are you sure? You know your hair will fall out, don’t you?” Umm, yeah. I kinda got that. Thanks. I’m not putting that thing on my head. Fuggetaboutit.

It is just hair. It will grow back. And this way I get to go all GI Jane when it starts to fall out and maybe try out a mohawk, at least for a few minutes. Come on, you know you have always wanted to try the ‘hawk.

So I do my first chemo with my perky bob sans cold cap. The treatment suite is pretty swanky. One level under ground but cleverly designed with skylights so it is sunny (when there is sun in London) and nice white leather adjustable chaises longues. People bringing round tea and biscuits. Free wifi. It ain’t a bad place to be, really. If you have to be there. I feel like Dr. Evil in my own little underground lair (except with skylights).

A nice lady comes by who is visiting a friend having been through chemo herself. She has a cute short hair cut. “You should really cut your hair short before your next treatment,” she offers. “It’s easier if it isn’t so long when it starts to go.” I agree. I’ve been warned that when it starts to go, it goes FAST.  And I don’t want to be pulling out long pieces in the tub or walking down the street on a windy London day and have the bloke behind me get a mouthful. Ew.

So a couple weeks later, off I jaunt to Hampstead for new hairstyle numero dos.

This is the shortest lasting hair cut of my life. It lasts exactly five days. On the fifth day I shower and pull out about one quarter of my hair. I am prepared for it, as much as one can be, but still it is disconcerting. I make my husband come deal with it. He does, no questions asked.

The next night I rally the troops, sanitise the shaver my cancer buddy friend lent me, get the shears and get busy. I enlist the girls. Bill is skeptical about their involvement. “But that way it will be fun and silly.” I explain. “You can’t just have mommy show up with a shaved head.”

Although this may seem to represent great wisdom and creativity on my part, I have come to this conclusion after our five year old burst into tears following each of my new haircuts, shrieking “I HATE it! You look POOPY!” And proceeded to bawl and spit (seriously) and carry on. Luckily I have a good sense of humour and thought this was funny, especially when after an hour both times she came up and said I looked great.

I let Isabel take the first whack at it with the shears. No turning back. After a while I start to resemble a concentration camp victim. Bill and I don’t like that part much. So it is time to speed up the process and whip out the shaver. Strangely, I enjoy it. I feel powerful. I do feel like Demi Moore in GI Jane (except taller and I’m not getting paid millions). At Isabel’s suggestion, we do a mohawk.

After snapping a few pics for posterity we shave off the ‘hawk (my hair is falling out so quickly we kind of have to — otherwise I totally would have kept it for a while).  This is London, after all. No better place to be an anonymous nutter (that’s “crazy person” for you British English challenged).

And there we are. The cold cap can suck it. Because I am killing this look.

The best part? Charlotte comes up to me the next day and says “Mommy, bald is your best look.”