“Life isn’t perfect, but my hair is!”
Twirling my hair contentedly, 17-year old me added yet another quote to my list of ‘Potential Instagram Captions for Goa’ list. My rather rocky relationship with my hair finally seemed to have plateaued. As someone who always had spiral curls, I have yearned for straight hair for as long as I can remember. Most of my teenage years consisted of me trying everything under the roof to tame my curls – from using a heat iron to attain the very short-lived pleasure of straight hair, to tying tight plaits before I slept to loosen them up – but all in vain. No matter what I did, my hair would always spring back into ringlets with madnessing consistency. Eventually, I realized that the only thing I hated more than curls were short curls, so I decided to settle for the lesser evil and not cut even an inch of my hair, for two years. Ultimately, my curls quite literally grew on me and I began to adore them. What better way to celebrate my marriage with my finally-waist-long-curls than going to a beach destination for my high-school graduation trip with friends who knew all my ‘gram worthy angles?
But the footnote that I should have included with this caption is that sometimes life isn’t perfect, and neither is your hair. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer during my 12th grade International Baccalaureate Board Examinations. Suddenly, my prom dress and the much awaited high-school graduation trip to Goa were the least of my worries.
And worst of all? Three cycles of chemotherapy which meant losing something that had always been super important to me – my hair.
The next 3 months seemed never-ending, amidst my parents sneaking in chicken nuggets to make my hospital stays more bearable, and the constant battle between my immunocompromised body’s shortcomings vs. my desire to join my friends in what seemed like the most exciting summer vacation when I was discharged. I hated all sorts of special treatment I was receiving and just wanted to be a care-free teenager again. Somehow, I made it to August – my treatment was almost over and clumps of my hair had fallen off like leaves on the trees. However, care-free was the last thing I could be as I had to make the daunting decision of either going to college as planned, or taking a semester off and going 6 months later. On one hand, there was the fear of missing out along with not wanting to lose another 6 months of my life to this disease. But on the other hand was the worry of going to a completely different country and leading a brand new life all alone while also being extra mindful about my health. However, once my doctors gave me the go-ahead, I did not see any reason to put my life on hold for any longer. So, (much to my mother’s horror) I made the decision of going to university as planned.
10 days after my last chemo shot, I finally set foot into my university, armed with my new wig and an eyebrow pencil. Of course, it wasn’t as easy as I’d imagined. “It’s always sunny in California” isn’t all that great when you have a synthetic wig adding 5 degrees to your body temperature at all times. Walking to class isn’t the best when the notorious Bay Area wind could, quite literally, blow your cover off at any time. And to top it all, I had missed about 2.5 weeks of the semester already, so I had a lot of catching up to do. Not to mention that I missed orientation week, and got lost on campus almost every other day. I was obviously not over what had happened, and sometimes my thoughts got the better of me. But small things like being able to cook my own food after months of being dependent on someone to come give it to me at my bedside, made me feel stronger.
I kept going, and I felt good.
Three wigs and approximately a year later, I did something that shocked myself more than anyone else. Having returned to Mumbai for my summer vacation, the heat and humidity made me get rid of my wig. My hair could be best described as a curly pixie cut (or alternatively, the fur of a poodle). If 17-year-old me saw this me walk out of my house, she’d think I looked like an absolute cartoon (my friend accurately compared me to Betty Boop). I missed being able to do a little hair-flip every time I guessed the word right during a game of Taboo, having a Bollywood moment every time I used a hairdryer, and every other small thing that came with having long hair – messy buns, pony tails, side plaits. The thing with curls is that even if they grow an inch, they spring back up into a ringlet – making it seem as though there’s barely been any growth at all. I, too, would go a few days doing great but then random triggers would dredge up flashbacks from the past that still had the power to haunt me, making me feel like I had made no progress at all. But I held on, and me and my curls, we grew together, slowly but steadily.
So I kept going, and I felt even better.
Yet another year later here I am, my hair a milder version of Lasith Malinga hairdos that are sold during IPL season. The huge scar on my tummy doesn’t bother me anymore and I can finally say the word ‘cancer’ without feeling something tingle inside of me. I volunteer at a Comprehensive Cancer Centre and a Wig Bank for chemo patients, and am part of a non-profit organisation at my university that gave me the opportunity to stand in front of a large audience and share my story, something I couldn’t even imagine myself doing in my wildest dreams, just a few months ago. I found a community that I deeply connect with and a cause that I wholeheartedly want to contribute to, and I know my journey doesn’t end here.
I’m glad I kept going, because now, I feel great.
I am always full of gratitude for the way things turned out for me; it feels good to know that an event as dreadful as this does not necessarily have to turn your entire life upside down. I am at par with my classmates, and in terms of timeline, my life is exactly where it would’ve been had I not been diagnosed with cancer. My journey from ‘victim’ to survivor was definitely rewarding. But I realised that being a ‘survivor’ is not just restricted to being a cancer survivor, it can be any kind of mental/emotional trauma that you experience and fight your way through – workplace lows, heartbreak, financial/family issues, or even a pandemic – and that tag stays with you. It gives you the confidence that once you survive something that completely derails your plans, you can survive the next thing life throws at you as well, no matter how big or small.
So the one thing I gained from all of this is that sometimes life is as smooth as silky straight hair and sometimes it’s as fun as beach curls. Sometimes it’s as stubborn as frizzy hair and sometimes it’s as barren as being bald. What’s important is to not let a bad hair day consume you, and get on with whatever you had planned to do. Do whatever it takes to make YOU feel better — a wig, a cap, some hair spray — but make sure you walk out that door and get going.
A traumatic experience doesn’t always have to change you. In spite of all the different hairstyle phases I’m still where I left off – a big fan of long hair. And it surely doesn’t have to stop you. Looking back, in spite of all the bumps, I’m glad I took the leap and went to university as planned. It made me feel strong, independent, and most importantly, unstoppable.
After all, it’s the bad hair days – the bad phases – that make the good hair days feel even better!