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Cancer Goes Prime Time
by Michelle Rapkin author of Any Day with Hair is a Good Hair Day

A few weeks ago, I watched the season premiere of “Desperate Housewives” only to learn that Lynette, one of the women of Wisteria Lane, has cancer. Even though I missed the entire last season of the series, I knew it the minute I saw her. She was bald.

In the opening scene, we hear her little boy’s approaching footsteps as he calls out to his mom and dad that someone’s at the front door. The camera pans to Lynette as she springs out of bed and searches frantically for her wig. You could feel her fear.

It turns out that Lynette hasn’t told anyone except her husband that she has cancer, even though she’s in chemo and has lost her hair. It’s clear that her wig is her safety blanket, her secret weapon that allows her to keep her secret from the rest of the world. As I watched the show, I wondered how long Lynette would keep the news from her friends and thought about all those times I’d thrown my wig on before answering the door seven years ago, when I was in chemo.

It made me wonder --- yet again --- what it is that makes us want to cover our head when we’re bald. Whether we wear a wig, scarf or a baseball cap, something in us doesn’t want our bald head – our badge of courage - out there for everyone else to see. Why is that? What’s so distressing about losing our hair?

B.C. (before cancer), I thought it was about vanity. When I’d hear a woman in chemo bemoaning the loss of her hair, I’d think, “What are you, crazy? You’re fighting for your life here! Focus on getting well. Your hair will grow back”. Then it happened to me.

I learned that it’s not about frivolous vanity. I learned that it is about having to live with a body that betrayed me; it’s about the loss of power…power over my life, health, time, even the power to choose who will know that I’m fighting for my life. It’s about that ‘doe in the headlights’ look that others instantly flash when they realize that I’ve got cancer, and it could happen to them too. It’s about having the most intensely personal war that I’ve ever waged telegraphed to strangers whether or not I care to share this news with them.

Which brings me back to Lynette. By the end of the episode, she’d told her friends that she has cancer, and the group promised never to keep secrets from each other again. And they did exactly what good friends should do. They rallied around her and went into support mode.

he next week I turned on the TV just in time to see Lynette in a chemo room, with one of her friends there to keep her company. She was wearing a scarf, sitting in one of those big chemo chairs. She was covered with a lap blanket, and I thought ‘ how realistic!’ because those rooms are always freezing. Then I realized that something was missing. Oh yes, the IV tubes. I looked a little closer: no needles, not tubes, no plastic bags of chemo cocktail. So much for prime time. Oh well, it’s a start.

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