Hope Not Fear: Finding the Silver Lining
Most women dread losing their hair and having to wear a wig during their treatment. It’s really hard to accept losing such an integral part of your appearance and femininity – even if temporary. An added concern is how others will perceive that hair loss and treat you as a result of it. To add a fresh perspective to this important and sensitive subject, we conducted an interview with Cheri who we first met a few days.
What stood us for us immediately upon meeting Cheri is her refreshing attitude to wearing wigs, adding her own creative approach to making the experience more fun in light of a difficult situation. She shares all about her diagnosis, the daily ups and the downs, on her blog “Hope Not Fear“.
A strong woman worth getting to know a little further, here’s our interview with Cheri and we hope it inspires you as much as it inspired us:
- Tell us a little a bit about yourself and your blog.
My name is Cheri Lewis. I am 38 years old and I live on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. I am happily married to an amazing, supportive man. We have no children, but we have 2 dogs (who are like my children).
In July 2012, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
I created my blog “Hope Not Fear” to keep my friends and family updated on my journey. It’s been a way to share with the world all the good and the bad. It allows me to express how I’m feeling throughout my fight. I hope that by sharing my journey, I can help others fighting their own battles find hope, stay positive and realize they are not alone in this.
- How did you react when you were first diagnosed with breast cancer?
When I was 20 years old, the University of British Columbia approached my family to do some genetic research on our blood line because my family has had a large number of breast and ovarian cancer cases (going back generations). They ended up finding a mutated gene in our blood line: the BRCA gene. This was an amazing discovery as now women all over the world can get tested for this gene to know how high a risk they have in getting breast and/or ovarian cancer.
I tested positive for both BRCA 1 & 2 - which is breast and ovarian. I had the option of removing my breasts and ovaries at that time but as I was only 21 years old, I wasn’t ready to make that kind of decision. I was screened every 6 months through mammograms and MRIs after that.
Although I knew for several years that I had an increased likelihood of getting cancer, nothing could quite prepare me for the day my doctor informed me that I had breast cancer.
I stayed composed at first (perhaps it hadn’t really set in) and asked lots of questions: “What was our next step?” “How far had it progressed?” etc. It wasn’t until my sister hugged me that I broke down in tears.
The weeks and months that followed seemed unreal. I was mostly in a daze. The scariest part for me was when I had my first appointment with my chemotherapy oncologist. After discussing my options, he started explaining survival rates. The numbers and reality of the situation really hit home that day. This shocked and scared me because not once before did I think I wouldn’t survive this. But I will survive this.
I choose to stay positive. I really believe that positivity and hope cures all. If your thoughts are negative, your body will not respond as well to treatment. I was given this life because I am strong enough to live it!
- For many women, a big fear upon hearing that they have to do undergo chemotherapy is the impending hair loss. Was that of particular concern to you?
Yes – I think it is a HUGE concern for every woman.
It seems silly that hair would be the biggest concern. They inform you of the many other scary side-effects, like sores in the mouth, menopause, finger nails lifting-off (the list goes on and on), but the one that sucks the most is the hair loss.
Many people have said to me “It’s just hair, no big deal…” – I don’t see them shaving their heads. They also say “It’ll grow back” – yes, eventually it will but going through all the emotional turmoil that comes with being diagnosed with cancer and then having that somewhat-alien reflection in the mirror reminding you everyday [that you're sick] is very challenging.
For men, it is also different. Many men live daily with a shaved or bald head. They wouldn’t really get looked twice, but when people see a bald woman, they instantly see a cancer patient and I don’t like the look of pity in their eyes.
Don’t pity me: I am a warrior and shaving my head was just a part of preparing for battle.
- Have you been able to go bald in public since starting treatment?
Only my close friends and family have seen me bald. At home, I don’t wear a wig or scarf, but if someone I don’t know that well comes over, I will throw something on my head. It’s more for them not to feel awkward than for me.
A few days after I’d shaved my head and completed my second chemo treatment, I went out to lunch with my sister. I hadn’t purchased any wigs yet and was just wearing a toque. Then, we started talking about exposing my bald, pale, shiny head to the whole restaurant. We giggled about it but I got so nervous!
It was funny how I could be brave enough to battle cancer but too afraid to show my bald head to strangers in public.
After a few more silly, nervous giggles and a few deep breaths, my sister counted to three and I removed my toque. I sat through my entire lunch bald. I felt more empowered than ever that day because I had conquered a fear. I felt that I can really do anything!
- You recently shared photographs of yourself with the different wigs that you’re wearing during this period, each reflecting a different side of your personality (or so we presumed). How did you choose these wigs and how many do you currently own?
At first, I purchased two high-quality wigs from a local wig shop. I wanted some expert advice on fit, comfort and to have different options to choose from. “Ginger” is synthetic; what you see is what you get. She cannot be styled. I chose her because of the fun color.
All the other wig options in the shop were pretty “safe” styles, and in my perspective, boring (I have always had fun with my hair). “Mary-Anne” was my splurge – she wasn’t cheap. She is 100% real human hair. I can wash, curl, flat-iron, cut and color it – anything I could do if I still had my own hair.
I purchased four more wigs online from Hair Sisters. This was the only website I found with some fun, funky-styled wigs that were also very reasonably-priced. I wasn’t sure how “real” these wigs would look as they are synthetic and sometimes synthetic hair can be very shiny (plastic-looking). Even if they look a little more “fake” than my more expensive wigs, they are fun with wild colors so that’s fine.
I have many options now. If you could see my closet and my huge selection of shoes, you would understand my need for more than a few hair choices.
Anything that can bring excitement and fun to a scary situation is worth it.
Rather than be sad about facing my day in public, I get to have some fun deciding which “personality” I wish to wear that day. Each wig is a personality and a piece of my own personality.
- Which one’s your favorite? And why?
Mmm… I’m not sure. I really like them all!
I would have to say it’s a tie between “Ginger” and “Mona”. My friends and family love “Ginger” the most. They request I wear her the most but sometimes she is a hassle as her hair is pretty long and tends to get tangled up. On the other hand, “Mona” is a super-short style so she’s very easy to wear and never gets in the way. I can wear big scarves around my neck without having it compete with the hair.
I have had random strangers compliment me on these two wigs, asking who my hairdresser is because they love the cut and color. I have them all fooled!
- How do you decide which one you’ll wear each day?
Having so many choices is sometimes a bad thing. It makes it harder to decide.
Sometimes it depends on the weather conditions: wind and rain can reek havoc on certain wigs. It also depends on my outfit for the day, where I’m going and what I’m doing. For example, “Ginger” being the fun red color that she is, can clash with certain outfits. If I am hosting a dinner, I stick to my shorter styles as I don’t want to have a fire hazard attached to my head.
- Has taking this approach helped you cope better with the physical side-effects of chemotherapy and the way you look?
Yes, as I mentioned earlier, anything that makes you feel better when going through so much is definitely worth it. You can be seen in public and not get pitied just because you’re a cancer patient.
It’s also exciting to choose a style for each day.
Getting complimented on your “hair” is therapeutic in a strange way.
- Would you encourage other women to do the same? And why?
Definitely if it helps them feel better but to each her own. Some women embrace “the bald” and feel powerful – like that day I went bald in the restaurant. I felt powerful too, but for me, that was more of a hurdle to cross. I may do it again one day.
In my case, feeling a little more “normal” on the outside makes me feel a little more “normal” on the inside too.
With my body going through so much because of the chemo, something as seemingly “trivial” or “vain” (to some) as hair, can be uplifting and fun, improving a crappy situation. When faced with a life-changing hurdle, try to make the best of it by finding a silver lining.
- What advice would you give to a fellow breast cancer patient reading this?
My biggest advice is to choose hope, not fear.
Being afraid is, of course, a natural first reaction. I have been there too, but fear is a cancer in and of itself. Being sad and afraid will not help you heal. At the same time, it is also o.k. to be angry sometimes and to have bad days but always remember that life is to short to wallow in sadness.
As horrible as cancer is, it has had a positive impact on my life. In the last few months, I have discovered more about myself than I ever thought I could. I don’t sweat the small things anymore. I now appreciate the little life experiences that I may have overlooked before. I am very thankful for myself, my strength and positivity.
My relationship with my husband has also grown much stronger than ever and I’m overwhelmed by the support of my friends and family. I have also made new friends (some I haven’t even met in person) with other warriors and survivors that have shared with me their battles. We’ve laughed about the coincidences and the humorous sides of chemo and reconstruction.
My final advice: Be strong. Stay strong. Lean on your loved ones. Be a warrior. Fight like a girl! Find the silver lining. Enjoy life. Don’t let this get you down. You were given this life because you are strong enough to live it.
If I can do it, so can you!
Follow Cheri’s journey on her blog “Hope Not Fear” and feel free to share with others who might benefit from her powerful message.