What a difference a year can make…

Lately I’ve found myself often stopping to think about what life was like a year ago at this time. You know, like the Timehop photos everyone posts on Facebook. During the interview that I did last month (if you missed it, you can watch it here: News 19 WLTX Interview), that was one of the questions that I was asked. To my surprise, I really had to think about that answer. What was I doing at this time last year? What was life like before being told that I had breast cancer? Life seems to have been such a whirlwind since February 17th and I’ve been so focused on taking each next step in this battle that I haven’t taken much time to think about what life was like before that day. Since the interview, I now stop to think about it a lot, and it doesn’t make me sad. It makes my heart so full to think of all that God has carried me through in those months, and how much He has worked on my heart in the process. Being able to look back to 1 year ago and see such a drastic difference in so many aspects of my life allows me to appreciate His grace so much more.

As we were sitting in the stadium at Clemson at the first game a few weeks ago, I realized I was wearing the same dress that I wore to the first game last year, but I started thinking about all that had changed since then. Then, it was my first time wearing orange in that stadium (because yes, I’m still a Carolina girl), I had a head full of long hair, I was sitting next to my boyfriend of less than a year, and I was in excellent health. Now, although still in that same orange dress, I was wearing a big floppy hat because I had no hair, I was sitting next to my husband of 6 months, and I was a breast cancer survivor who just went through chemo and a double mastectomy. Wow! What a difference a year makes…

First Clemson game August 2014
First Clemson game August 2014
First Clemson game August 2015
First Clemson game August 2015

There have been many changes to my heart in this year, one of them resulting from one of the most noticeable differences when I look back at photos – the changes in my physical appearance. Losing my hair and my recent surgery have taught me a great deal about losing myself and knowing Him more. Now I will admit that I do miss my long hair when I look back at those photos, but I am then reminded again that physical beauty is not where my happiness lies. I’ve learned to be content even when I don’t like what I see in the mirror. Has it been easy? Definitely not. No matter how many times people said to me “It’s just hair, it will grow back”, it didn’t make facing that any easier. However, I have learned to go to God with these struggles and get my worth from who I am in Christ rather than what I see when I look in the mirror. 1 Samuel 16:7 says “But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at, Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.'” I did like my long hair and my old body, but not having either doesn’t mean I that I can’t be content. It’s a choice I’ve had to make, to be content with my physical appearance the way it is. The condition of my heart is far more important to God anyway.

I remember the phone conversation with my nurse in which she told me chemo would likely be my first step in treatment and the first thing I asked her was if I would lose my hair. She told me yes, that unfortunately the chemo drugs used to treat breast cancer cause you to lose all of your hair and it would probably start to happen about 2 weeks following my first treatment. I was terrified to say the least. I remember going to home that afternoon and curling my hair just because I knew it would be a long time before I would be able to do it again.  I decided to get it cut short the day after my first treatment. Many survivors had given me this advice and I thought it would be an easier transition to being bald, if there was such a thing.

One of the last pictures of my long hair - Christmas 2014
One of the last pictures of my long hair – Christmas 2014
Haircut! April 2, 2015
Haircut! April 2, 2015
Another picture of my short hair
Short hair!

I didn’t sport my new ‘do very long because the nurse turned out to be right about the 2 week mark.I pulled out my first handful of hair as I ran my hand through it while in the chair for my second treatment. It was an unsettling moment and I’ll never forget the look on my sweet momma’s face. I knew it would happen soon but I wished she hadn’t been right there beside me to see it. Although I’m not sure if I would have ever been fully ready to lose my hair, I was as ready as I could have been. Like the weeks before chemo that I’d spent wondering what it would be like, I had been wondering what being bald would be like and it was consuming my thoughts. I had already planned to shave it once it started to come out, another piece of advice from survivors, and had been tugging at it all day everyday that week. I wanted to shave it that week before I went back to work after Spring Break so I’d have some time to adjust, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it until I knew it was really going to come out. I knew what I’d been told and what I’d read, but I just couldn’t do it until I saw for myself. I had been praying all week for God to let me know when it was time, so when that handful came out that day, it was somewhat of a relief. We called Adam’s hairdresser that afternoon on our way home from chemo and she told us to come on to the salon that evening. God sent me a sweet blessing on that ride home. On top of feeling tired and sick from chemo, I was feeling all sorts of emotions about what I knew I was about to have to do. I opened my email and there was the email letting me know that the hair I’d donated after my haircut had been received. It was just what I needed to put things into perspective and I felt like God was reminding me that He was using all of this for good, even these things that were so very hard for me to face.

The certificate I got via email just before going to get my head shaved April 2, 2015
The certificate I got via email just before going to get my head shaved April 2, 2015

Adam made the first swipe with the clippers and then very quickly it was done! Surprisingly, I didn’t cry one tear. Again, I felt relief that one more very hard part was behind us.

Adam taking the first swipe with the clippers to shave my head April 2, 2015
Adam taking the first swipe with the clippers to shave my head April 2, 2015
It's finished!
It’s finished!

The days following were filled with a lot of tears, however, and it took a very long time for me to get used to the way I looked when I walked past a mirror. I even had Adam cover the mirror for the first couple of days. I would wrap the towel on top of my head in a turban when I got out of the shower, just like when I had hair to dry, because I would rather look at that in the mirror while I was putting on makeup than my new self. I know being bald sounds trivial compared to other trials people face, but I will be honest and say that those were some very hard days and weeks for me. It did surprise me that I preferred scarves to my wig. I spent time picking out the perfect wig and had plans to wear it all the time once I’d shaved my head, but in reality I have worn it maybe a total of 5 times since April! I always preferred scarves to hats because I liked the feeling of having the back of my neck covered, like when I had hair.

Before the Fight Like a Girl benefit, one of the few times I've worn my wig April 2015
Before the Fight Like a Girl benefit, one of the few times I’ve worn my wig April 2015
Lexie and I being twins with our headscarves
Lexie and I being twins with our headscarves

I kept wondering if I would someday be comfortable going out in public without covering my head at all, but I never was. I had met several survivors who went out bald proudly and they were oh so beautiful, and I admired their ability to do that. I never made it to that point, but it wasn’t because I was ashamed of the way I looked. The only way I know to describe it is that I felt naked. My first day back at work after shaving my head, I decided to wear a scarf because I just did not like the wig. It was a very frustrating morning with many tears at our house! Getting out of the car at school was incredibly difficult, much more so than I anticipated. I dreaded the sad looks I knew I would get and I didn’t want to make people feel uncomfortable. I knew they wouldn’t know what to say to me. I was scared of what the children would say. I know that sounds silly as an adult, but it’s the truth! But you know what, it turned out fine. I prayed before I got out of the car that God would get me through that day and He did. Of course He did, He always does. Sometimes that’s all you can ask for is the strength to face things one day a time, and sometimes one hour at a time. It got easier as time went by and I eventually got used to my new appearance. I can’t say that I always liked it, but I accepted it. Everyone handles that part differently, but it was always encouraging to me to see or hear other women’s stories so I share this part of the journey to encourage other women who may be facing losing their hair.

I am happy to report that my eyebrows and eyelashes are growing back very quickly and for that I am so grateful! They didn’t start coming out until after chemo was over in June, and by the week of my surgery in July, I only had about 3 left! My hair is also growing back and I’ve gone from looking like Charlie Brown’s friend Pigpen to an actual head full of little short hairs. I’m still wearing my scarves until it gets just a little longer though!

Reflecting on the changes in my appearance and the emotions that have gone along with them also makes me appreciate all that God has taught me through this aspect of breast cancer. I have gleaned such a different perspective on life in these months and what is truly important. On October 17th, during breast cancer awareness month, I’ll be participating in the Palmetto Health Walk/Race for Life as a survivor! One of the reasons I am participating is in order to raise awareness. Early detection is so important for beating this disease and my hope is that raising awareness in our community will encourage women to be more vigilant so that they are able to detect this as early as possible! I am also raising funds to help other local women facing breast cancer get the best care possible.  All proceeds from the Walk for Life/Race for Life will benefit Palmetto Health Breast Center. Please consider donating or joining us on October 17th!

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