I have always been blessed with good hair – thick, straight, silky. I’ve never dyed it my whole life for I love its natural color – like pitch-black night, like charcoal.
“Ipa-opaw nimo ini lang? Nanga baya? Kinahanglan gayud? Ay ay kasayang isab,” Kuya Rho asked, quite distressed when I told him to have it skinhead.
“It’s okay Kuya, just like last time- it’s alopecia or hair loss. I am undergoing chemotherapy again. It’s really necessary to shave it all off as it is getting messy – my hair falling out everywhere – in my bed, pillow, t-shirt,” I replied.
Kuya Rho seemed to forget that this is the second time he shaved my head off. The first time was nine months ago, during my initial diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma – a common cancer in my age bracket starting in infection fighting cells called lymphocytes that grew out of control. Alopecia is no longer a stranger to me for I have witnessed it happen to my aunt who succumbed to breast cancer about seven months ago. She was 66 years old. The day she shaved her head off, her hair was still intact, alopecia has not started yet. The doctor advised her to shave it as early as possible so she will get used to not seeing it for a while. Before we went to the salon, she combed her hair while looking at herself in the mirror and said in a small voice, “I guess I will stop using you for a while”, referring to her comb. I pretended I didn’t hear her but hearing what she said broke my heart.
Cancer as portrayed mostly in television and movies show someone lying in a hospital bed, tubes in hands, legs or nose, bald, skinny and with a pale complexion and dark circles under the eyes. My Aunt Nelda’s battle against cancer is almost like that taking away tubes in the picture. Her body deteriorated each day. Her muscles shrunk, lumps were found all over, her bones became weak and the length of her left leg is longer than her right leg. Worst of all, her eyesight weakened to the point that the only thing she can see is a speck of light. She could no longer recognize anyone’s face and in order to know who she is talking to, she would need to listen carefully to the sound of the person’s voice and when she fails to recognize it, she would ask the name. When in deep pain, my Aunt Nelda prayed even more.
Cancer indeed is vicious but through the scientific advancements that are enjoyed today, treatments are available and the earlier the diagnosis, the higher the chances for it to be treated. Unfortunately for my aunt, she underwent chemotherapy already at stage IV. She completed the first line treatment but needed further chemotherapy after her cancer didn’t go away completely. When I was put into a similar situation, after finishing the first line chemotherapy for six months and three months after, my symptoms came back- my temperature went up to 39 degrees Celsius every day, I have night sweats and my hemoglobin dropped that I needed to have Epoietin injection once a week, I almost gave up but it was the memory of my aunt’s faith and courage that helped me continue. That is why when my doctor told me that I needed further chemotherapy; I took a deep breath and welcome alopecia again.
Alopecia perhaps is the symbol or the indication that one has cancer, but not everyone experience this like those patients undergoing low-dose chemotherapy. It is a fact that alopecia is devastating; but for me, it is not the most devastating side effect of chemotherapy. What is most devastating is if we allow hope to run out. Battling cancer for almost a year now, I realized that there are many reasons to be hopeful. First, there are a growing number of cancer survivors all over the world. Second, researchers and scientists are not stopping in finding a better cure for cancer and in finding a way to prevent it. And to those patients who are struggling and have no means to pay their medicines, there are foundations and organizations that provide financial assistance. Lastly, there are ordinary people like my Aunt Nelda whose faith never faltered despite the pain that cancer inflicted.
My greatest dream is that one day no one will go through alopecia and chemotherapy again – one day the world would be without cancer. For now, cancer patients like me will just have to roll our sleeves, look at the sky more often and keep the shine in our eyes.
*Since September is blood cancer awareness month, this essay is in honor of those who lose their life to cancer, those who beat cancer and those who are still fighting against cancer.
Abi is currently fighting Hodgkin’s lymphoma and is from Surigao del Sur.