Thursday, February 4, 2010

Cancer Cliche #1: Shaving Heads in Support

You've all seen the movies. The poor woman, sick with cancer, bald from chemo, comes home from the hospital, eyes circled dark, and completely exhausted - only to see a group of her friends and family, standing there - bald. Heads shaved in support of her. This makes her smile and gives her energy to go on with her treatment. Seeing other people bald gives her the will to live.

In a recent movie, a bald teenage cancer patient who wants to go to a prom but is embarrassed by her head watches as her gorgeous mom, Cameron Diaz, shaves her head to encourage her to go, showing her support for her bald daughter. Then they go wig shopping because we know Cameron isn't going to walk around bald for a whole movie. I'm sure it was embarrassment enough that they cast her as the mom of a teen.

Naturally, being a fan of media and pop culture cliches, I've been expecting to come home any day to find friends and family with bald heads, shivering in the cold to support me.

But no. Not a head shaved in my honor.

I'm so depressed.

Does nobody love me?

Okay, my husband gets a pass, since he's already sporting a full head of male pattern baldness. But, what about my 23 year old son, with not only a mass of curly hair but also a beard and mustache? What about his girlfriend - she won't lose her sassy short curls in my honor? What about my 13 year old? Granted, he did cut it from his shoulder to his ears - but is that really enough? My sister still has all her luxurious, curly hair. How dare she? Why, they are practically flaunting all that hair in my face!

A rite of cancer isn't happening for me, and I'm disturbed by that.

Or, am I?

My husband has taken over many of my household chores and has put up with more than he ever expected when he married a young thing like me, 11 years his junior.. My son has to endure his bald mom in scarves picking him up from school everyday, and we know how well middle school kids tolerate differences. I have had to skip an out-of-town contest he was in because of a chemo treatment. He never complains and his grades are still straight As - isn't that support? My oldest picked up my youngest from school daily when I was recovering from surgery and hospitalized - that is support I couldn't have done without. Friends have sent me thoughtful gifts and several meals were delivered. And, I have received wonderful cards and messages of encouragement from all over. It's time to go back to work, and my employer is even going to accommodate my grueling medical schedule, which they don't have to do.

Having any of them be bald wouldn't have made any of these things any better.

If you are considering shaving your head in support of your loved one with cancer, keep this in mind: it won't make chemo go any faster, it won't remove scars,  it won't make the cancer patient's hair grow back, and it won't change their prognosis.

In the secret places we cancer patients talk about this kind of thing, the consensus is by most of us that we don't want people shaving their heads to support us.  As for me, most of the time, I'm not even thinking about being bald and suddenly seeing my kid's bald head would startle me back into thinking "Oh, yeah, I have cancer."

Personally, I like looking at my older son's lovely curls and his girlfriend's gorgeous cut, and I love watching my teen's hair start to curl softly around the edges. I would be deprived of that.

Not to mention, if I had some sort of bald fetish, I know where to get my jollies: I see a wide assortment of bald heads weekly in the infusion room.

My advice: before you take that cliched step of shaving your head in support of somebody with cancer, think about exactly what kind of support that will really provide. Is it something they will find touching? Are you sure?  Or, is it an empty gesture in lieu of actual valuable help they will need, such as  meals, phone calls, help with rides, and house cleaning?

If you are certain you want to do this,  at least grow you hair out ten inches first, and then donate it to Locks of Love. That shows real support to children with cancer.

Otherwise, my advice is to leave this silly cliche in the movies, and to Cameron Diaz, where it belongs.


  1. I LOVE this post. All the things our family and friends to on a daily basis goes far beyond the trivial act of shaving ones heads. Like you my family supports me in many ways and my friends make meals nad come babysit, hold my hand whiletaking note at my DR appointments, and develope a code to determine when I need a cancer free chat or to unload. Shaving seems pointless, unless they are gonna then donate that hair to a charity!

  2. I never got the whole shaved head thing either. Looking at my loved ones with no hair would not have helped me feel better about my own bald scalp.

  3. Not all cancer patients think this way. I was ten with my mother was first diagnosed with breast cancer and no one in our family shaved their heads in support of her, not even me, her baby girl. Being ten I didn't even realize it what possible to lose my hair. When I got older she shared her true feelings with me and how she felt about being the only bald person when we went out. I am 19 now and her cancer has returned. We are going to be bald together this time so people are not going to stare only at her, they are going to stare at us together. I don't recommend just anyone shaving their heads. You definitely need to talk to the person you're supporting because I know not everyone feels like my mom just like the above women don't but some do. So just talk about it first.

  4. I think this really speaks to how important it is to really think about how to support one another. Checking in, taking account of needs and feelings, knowing what is important to the people we care about. Setting a standard of bald support won't work for everybody. But, listening to each other is a start. I loved all of these responses. And, thank you to Ann again for her candid remarks.

  5. I am considering this very decision, whether or not to shave my head in support of my friend who will undergo treatment shortly. I provide other support in the form of hospital visits, preparing meals for the family, etc, as he has been ill and in hospital for a few weeks now. I wondered if shaving my head would appear selfish, but after reading Kristen's post above I can see that there may be some real benefit in my doing so. Thanks for all of the great responses.

    I don't have time to grow it 10 inches.

    1. I lost my hair a few months ago and don't really think about it unless my head is cold. If some non-cancer person had shaved their hair at the same time as me, wouldn't it be growing back in by now?

  6. My best friend was just diagnosed with lymphoma (she's 18). I'm away at college and can't be there for her to run errands and such for her family, and I am considering shaving my head for her. We have talked about it, and told me that I certainly don't have to, but she would be very touched.

  7. I thought for the longest time there was something wrong with ME because I felt exactly this way. Loosing my hair in my battle with breast cancer was but one of many trials to face. I didn't want to have family and friends shave their heads. It was much more meaningful to have the help I needed with errands, children, work, the occasional meal and the ever important..."Hi, I was just thinking about you". Even those not near me could offer support in a much greater way than shaving their heads.
    If it is something the person going through the cancer process truly wants, then who am I to say you shouldn't? I just am glad to know there are others that feel the same as I do :)

  8. I would not have wanted friends and family shaving their heads, creating a daily reminder that I was bald. It was bad enough morning/evening when I wasn't wearing my wig or scarf, but during the day, with something on my head, I could at least not think about it.
    And I am sick of hearing how losing your hair is "the most traumatic thing" for a woman with cancer. It was bad. I had had very long hair. But, I would remind myself each time it bothered me, "it will grow back." That is not something I can say when I daily look at my flat scarred chest or put on my compression sleeve because missing lymph nodes caused lymphedema. (And realizing I will eventually be allowed to get reconstruction is not in the same league as hair growing back. The new breasts will have scars, there will be more scars on my abdomen as they say I cannot use implants, and most of all, they will not have the same, if any, feeling when touched.)
    The practical help and compassionate hugs from family and friends meant so much more than any head shaving.

  9. Amen. Seeing other bald heads would not have halped, but the wonderful caring things friends and family did made a huge difference.

  10. I wish more of the money that is put into cancer research would go towards researching non-toxic cancer treatments instead of chemo. As a person that doesn't believe that pumping toxic chemo chemicals into a person's body is a good healing method, no I would not shave my head if anyone I know had cancer and decided to use chemo. If I ever developed a disease that caused my hair to fall out, I would not want or expect others around me to sacrifice their hair.

  11. Remember that some people who are suffering from breast cancer do worry about their appearance, my reason for wanting to do it is to remind them that being bald doesn't make you ugly, I think if it can help reduce their stress even a little it's worth it.

  12. While I really enjoyed reading this I have to disagree with some. I dont feel that all cancer patients feel this way. My mom has stage 4 esophageal cancer and we are just starting chemo for her. I have not left her side and am here to take care of her. I am 26 and my mom is 55 and never thought we would be dealing with this so young but then again who does right?? I am shaving my head WITH my mother to show her that even though im not going through the chemo, the radiation, but I am here for her and not leaving her side. Im here through all of this with her every step of the way. My mom has always cared a lot about her appearance and spends hours on her hair, gets her hair done all the time. She loves to look well put together so this for her will be very hard. So im here to let her know thag I am here. Being bald can still be beautiful and ill hold her hand while we both sit in the chair getting out heads shaved .

    1. Good for you! My mom is a stage 4 breast cancer survivor 7 years now and I shaved her head when she woke up to chunks of hair in her bed. Then she shaved mine! I kept mine shaved until hers started to grow back and I still shave mine every October.

  13. One of my 2 best friends has just been diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. She was 31 yesterday and has 4 kids, the youngest being 12 weeks old. Myself and my other best friend are shaving our heads along with her. She is being so positive and focused on the battle ahead and tackling it face on, but the thought of losing her hair is torturing her and its heartbreaking to see someone with so much spirit fight back tears every time she tries to put a positive spin on the loss of her hair. So we're giving her the strength and support to take charge and control and not wait for the enevitable. The three of us have been best friends since we were 12. We had our first babysitting jobs together, our first drink together, our first dates together, school together, held each others hands when our hearts were broken, welcomed our children on to the planet together, and although we don't see each other every day we are always a trio. We've said it since we were 12 that its us three against the world, so i'll be damned if I sit back and watch my best friend fall apart at the seams worrying about losing her hair and see her being abnormally self conscious about being the only one without hair. Thats the support SHE needs, so thats the support she gets. We are organising a charity night and raising money for a charity of her choice and also giving her half the money raised to cover bills or the expense of christmas so she has one less thing to worry about. We've signed all of our friends up to help with the kids, with cooking, doing the shopping, school runs and house work. She has more support than she knows what to do with, and two best friends that will remain bald as long as she is bald and then the three of us will grow our hair back together. I dont see this is a shallow show of support or an empty gesture, I see this as giving my friend exactly the type of support she needs

  14. I dyed my hair pink. It was not long enough to donate and too many dye jobs as is. More people ask me questions instead of speculating if I am the one sick.

  15. I think the act of shaving your head is more about a friend or loved one being at a loss of knowing what to do to support someone - but wanting to do something. Shaving your head is an attempt at showing that you are part of their team - much like military recruits all get the same haircut. I think calling the act shallow is a bit harsh. Some people feel powerless in dealing with someone who has cancer and they want to do something to show support. I do like your ideas of what you can do - because often people don't know how to act around people with this disease.


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