As the thunder of victory cheer echoed throughout New England, I wanted to stick my arms through our flat screen and hug Galynn Brady. She did it. Mrs. Brady intercepted her cancer treatment plan to support her son as he led the Patriots to the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history.
Equally as daunting, Mrs. Brady wrapped her head in a bandanna and marched into NGR stadium, dodging flying confetti and murmurs of speculation.
Why was Tom Brady’s mother wearing a bandana?
Did she have cancer?
Was she bald, like me?
Man...I thought. That Mrs. Brady has balls. Courage is not running on a field, body surfing to a melody of praise and applause. Courage is sitting on the sidelines, patiently ignoring the wave of whispers about you. By sporting a bandanna at one of the world’s most prestigious and publicized events, Mrs. Brady proved that cancer can happen to anyone, regardless of access to health care, financial resources or who is gathered around your Thanksgiving table.
I was not surprised. Mrs. Brady, whose uterus should be dipped in gold and displayed at the Smithsonian, would have tackled Julio Jones and a 5’11” Brazilian supermodel to be at Super Bowl LI. Her Tommy had a rough year and needed his mother. I deeply understood her feelings. See we are both mothers, Mrs. Brady and I. And we both endured the humiliating side effects of chemotherapy.
My strategy was to melt into obscurity; I just wanted to be an ordinary mother watching her daughter play softball. I needed to arrive at my children’s sporting events looking as close to my pre-cancer self as possible. On one hand, it was a play to avoid the Cancer Conversation:
I was SHOCKED to hear your news. How devastating for your family.
When my college roommate had cancer, her husband left. How are you and Marc doing?
Do you have the BRCA gene?
On the other hand, it was a strategy to defend my daughters. What if other children teased my little girls because of their bald headed mother? Then I would have to hunt down the little bastards and light them on fire.
So when my Oncologist offered to write me a prescription for a wig I said, “Yes, please.” She told me that a good wig will run between $600-$1500 but my insurance company should cover part or most of the cost.
Should being the operative word.
The kicker of cancer treatment is that chemotherapy induced alopecia is considered a side effect of treatment. Therefore, health plans are not mandated to cover the cost of a wig or the use of cooling cap systems as they are not medically necessary.
Since the time when we can grow enough hair to bundle a pigtail, little girls learn that our hair makes us pretty. We curl it, straighten it, braid it, layer it, tease it, color it and wrap it in a bow like a beloved Christmas present.
Then 1 out of every 8 of us will develop breast cancer. Most of us are told that we will die from this disease unless we undergo chemotherapy. It’s an unfair call. With our backs to the wall, we grudgingly accept that our heads will be stripped and left naked. We brace ourselves for a very long and visible walk of shame. Baldness is the Scarlet Letter of a cancer diagnosis as it publicly brands us as sick, weak citizens that are diseased.
Please God….if I can only keep my hair, I prayed.
Heading into the fight for my life, I needed to sport a ponytail. I gather my strength and courage when I gather my hair, pull it off my face and snap the elastic. The ritual is my call to battle before a game, before laboring children, and before I feel that first pinch of the infusion needle. Without my ponytail, I did not feel like myself. Instead, I felt like a cancer patient.
Why are women so polite about chemotherapy induced hair loss? Do the sideline murmurs of vanity and guilt eclipse the truth?
Its ONLY hair
It will most likely grow back
Beauty comes from within
Parading around as egghead is a deeply traumatic and humiliating experience. Yes, there are strong, beautiful women who can rock the bald look:
Britney Spears (Not so much)
However, these women choose to shave their heads as an expression of style. Therefore it is a conscientious decision, not a traumatic loss.
Here’s the exciting news: we now have technology that will enable cancer patients to keep their hair during treatment. The FDA recently approved the DigniCap and Paxman scalp cooling systems, automated devices that prevent chemotherapy induced alopecia in patients with solid tumor cancers. The systems, which have been used extensively outside the United States, have proven successful in helping cancer patients keep at least half of their hair during treatment.
But FDA approval does not translate into coverage by health plans. A session with a cooling device will run between $300-$500. Meaning the rich girls will get to keep their hair. But the poor girls will not.
Women do not play that way. Intuitively, we bond with our sisters to protect our tribe. Though our entrance into the arena may not be intimidating, our strength and power lie in our ability to connect and communicate with each other. Let’s spread the word, ladies.
Cancer will not take our hair anymore.
Patients need to know that they now have a option to save their hair during cancer treatment. We need to demand the use of cooling cap systems at infusion centers and mandate health plans to cover the cost. Ask your oncologist when the Dignicap or Paxman Scalp Cooling System will be available in your area. Email your politicians to push legislation that provides equal access to the softer side of medical of care. Call your insurance company and inform them that caring for mind and spirit is a foundational part of health care. Let’s end the era of the bald headed cancer patient.