The Year I Went Bald

First, cancer took my work identity. Then it took my hair

women with hair that look like strands of text
The Walrus

“How do you want me to style your hair?”

I sat in the chair at the hair salon I’ve frequented as long as I’ve lived in Brooklyn. A few months had gone by since I’d last seen my stylist. I could place my hands on either side of my head, seize a fistful of curls, and feel irritated by the thickness, my standard reaction to midsummer humidity. The back and sides were particularly overlong. It was time to shape my hair, prune it, make the style sleeker. To override a Samson-like superstition that cutting it would deprive me of my strength.

My hairdresser’s opening question was, in fact, fraught with added meaning. Eighteen months earlier, I’d arrived at the salon with a different, more vexing problem: my hair was falling out, shedding all over my bedroom pillows, clogging the shower drain with clumps. Waves of chestnut brown, disappearing faster than I could keep up, thanks to chemotherapy-induced alopecia.

“Buzz it down,” I implored her. “Don’t stop until there’s almost nothing left.” Concern crept into her face. She’d never done this before, not for such stark reasons. But she did as I asked.

A mere year and a half elapsed between saying goodbye to my old hair and being quietly accepting of my new hair. Between my body wrestling with the toxic drugs coursing through my veins on a weekly basis and growing used to the daily pill that keeps the cancer from returning, ideally forever. Between reading a book every day without effort and working profusely to maintain that pace. Between a piecemeal first draft, assembled out of order, and a finished book, my very own, my first, ready for people to read.

Other people tell me this is an extraordinary timeline. But what else was I going to do?

I don’t know how I wrote a book while being treated for breast cancer. People have asked, and will continue to ask, and the answers I provide aren’t satisfactory. Because I love deadlines? Because I had a publisher green-light my book not long before my diagnosis? Because if I didn’t write it, I might have to return the advance? Because of sheer terror that, just shy of forty, I’d miss out on my biggest professional chance to date, one I’d worked so hard, and been so careful, to achieve, one borne of a need to tell the story of the real girl who inspired the classic and controversial novel Lolita? Those sound flippant, tin eared, even if they are true, even if they are the motivation I needed to keep researching and get words on the page.

Even the “not knowing” isn’t quite right. I do know, because I didn’t go into some fugue state while chemotherapy scorched the veins in my right arm over a period of twelve weeks between late November 2016 and Valentine’s Day 2017, while radiation zapped a tiny portion of my surgically rebuilt left breast on a daily basis over a month when winter transformed into spring, and while the thick, wavy, dark brown hair of my youth vanished, slowly and then all at once.

I do know, because within a few days of my first chemo treatment, once I had weathered the first cycle of debilitating exhaustion, borderline nausea, and recovery, I could plan out my working time, week by week, so that every Sunday was a book-writing day.

Treatment days were Tuesdays; Thursdays and Fridays I spent almost entirely in bed, sleep vying with wakefulness. But, by Saturday afternoons, the crushing Taxol-induced fatigue had abated. Not only could I function, I could go out in the evenings. And on Sunday mornings, I asked myself, “What section of the book do I want to work on today?”

Selling a nonfiction book on the basis of a magazine article gave me an advantage. I’d already done a significant amount of research and reporting years before my diagnosis and surgery. During the most gruelling treatments, I could set aside additional reporting—especially anything that required out-of-state travel—until they were complete and my immune system had rebounded to normal levels.

My daily energy plummeted, in concert with my hair, but my ability to read did not. I feared that cancer would rob me of my bookish essence. There’s a photograph of me, at around five months old, staring at a ripped-off book cover with rapt concentration. I began to read in earnest at two and a half and realized I read faster than nearly everybody by second grade. I’ve tried to slow myself down, but my natural reading speed remains a book a day.

If I had to choose between writing and reading, I would choose to read, because there is so much I’ve yet to learn, so many worlds I’ve yet to visit, all secreted away between the pages of a book. Writing is what I do and how I communicate. Reading gives me permission for what I do by widening the lanes of my creativity and narrative ambition. Writing is work, but reading is pleasure.

I didn’t read much on treatment days, granted, but that owed more to chats with friends kind enough to sit with me, checking in with the on-duty nurse, or, if alone, catching up on podcasts. My mind was busy, so solitude didn’t give way to despair when I looked in the mirror and recognized a sharper, leaner, more haggard, and hairless version of myself. Reading was a means to enter a different reality from the physical one I was forced to embody. I don’t want to contemplate how I would have endured these weeks without plunging into books, for pleasure and for research. I’m glad I didn’t have to.

What I wrote, those Sundays, drew from my earlier discoveries, from novels, biographies, archives, documents, newspaper articles, and secondary source material. I wanted to write entirely new sections to stave off boredom that might result from repeating the earlier magazine piece. I wanted to keep my mind occupied with the new to avoid crowding it with anxiety over the looming deadline and whether cancer treatment might delay me. And I left swaths of chapters unwritten, bolded “TKs” as placeholders for the material I’d yet to discover in future research, travel, and interviews.

My book draft resembled, in my brain, one of those vintage monographs or newspaper articles written in the tiniest of prints, legible only with a magnifying glass. I had a vague sense of the entire picture, but I could only press the glass to a discrete section and work on that. Then the next week, take the imaginary glass to a different part and amplify that one. Here was progress, in decidedly nonlinear fashion. But it was the only fashion that seemed to work.

Radiation forced me to set the book aside for a month. Daily treatment and commutes did not mix well with the process, though in theory I was a lot less tired than I was from the chemo. I wondered why my hair wasn’t growing back, even as I still preferred the bald, lean-cheekboned version of myself to wearing hats or wigs. Distraction came in the form of a local, vintage crime story, one that I could research in the city but mostly from home. Once those treatments ceased, and my white blood cell counts were high enough for me to travel, the next stage began.

From early May through the end of August, I spent more days on the road than I did at home. The Pacific Northwest, Camden, Philadelphia, Trenton (on multiple occasions), Baltimore, Annapolis, San Jose, and San Francisco for the book, plus Halifax and Cape Breton for vacation. I spent most of my time interviewing people or walking streets or searching for documents in dusty archives rather than writing. All that travel, all that information intake, paralleled my treatment recovery and the regrowth of my hair—scattered and haphazard at first, then fuller and straightforward. I didn’t think much about how people might perceive me as I travelled for research—at least not until one woman I interviewed gently asked why my hair was so cropped.

It took a late night in a Seattle hotel room, coming off a marathon interview session farther up the Olympic Peninsula, to transform intake into output. I wrote an entire chapter draft without stopping, channelling emotions—the subject’s, and mine—as if I’d received them by injection.

Over those months of travel, I realized much later, the nonlinear mosaic better resembled a manuscript, the way my hair better resembled a style. By Labour Day, sequestered at a residency in New England, the draft was finished. Much work lay ahead, but I knew I’d be ready. The increased strength corresponded to the growth of my hair. Six months earlier, I was bald and fatigued. Now the fatigue arrived less frequently, and when I ran my hands through my hair, I realized, equally delighted and off kilter, that I preferred version 2.0.

My hair generates many compliments. Some from those who know what I’ve been through but most from those without any idea. “It’s so curly,” they exclaim. “It’s so thick. It suits you.” I agree with them, but when I take the compliment, there’s a sense of maror, bitter herbs served at Passover, hanging over my gratitude. I earned my reconstituted curls, my darker chestnut color, my newfound ’do, but I would not wish these badges of so-called honour on the worst of enemies.

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My mind worked hard to finish my book. My body worked hard to clear out the cancer and then the toxic drugs ingested to keep me clear. There were months I didn’t want to go to the hairdresser at all. I worried that if I took shears to my regrown hair, I might reverse my good fortune, lose my strength, change my luck.

I got over that, though. My innate pragmatism asserted itself. A haircut is, once again, a haircut. And, not long from now, I’ll start researching and writing the next book. There will be different challenges, pitfalls I cannot conceive of yet, because each book has its own questions to answer, with ease and with difficulty.

A debut book only happens once, a singular event. In my case, it’s all the more special because of how writing it forced me to reckon with the most essential parts of myself. Before cancer, reading was oxygen and writing was power. They remain that way after cancer but bound even tighter together, as if strengthened by an extra covalent bond.

I’ll never write this book, at this time, in this way again. Future books hopefully won’t have cancer, and its treatment, directly embedded into the narrative spine. But the embers will be there, encoded in the literary DNA. Readers might not be able to spot them, but I always will.

Sarah Weinman
Sarah Weinman is the author of The Real Lolita: A Lost Girl, an Unthinkable Crime, and a Scandalous Masterpiece (Knopf Canada), which won the Arthur Ellis Award for Excellence in Crime Writing.

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