9-Months to Recovery

Somewhere in between my first and second wig, there’s one wig whose story went untold. A wig that’s a missing link to my story but I only recently remembered. I must be getting old!

The missing link, or wig as I like to call it, was the second wig I wore. Something about being passed from one woman to the other creates a bond between them. She references the first woman in this project, the owner of the wig stand, as her inspiration and for these exact words she told her:

“Think of your treatment as a pregnancy. It’s nine months of difficulty and then you’re done. The only difference is that after pregnancy you end up with something beautiful but with your treatment, you get rid of something bad.”

It was reassuring for her to see her friend, who’d gone through the same thing before her, look healthy with all her hair growing back post-treatment. She clung onto these words throughout her treatment.

Like the third lady whose story I’ve shared, she was also young. At 35, she got her first mammogram at her doctor’s suggestion. No one was expecting the results to reveal cancer in her chest. 9 months later, just as she’d been told, her treatment was over.

One thing I admired most about her is that she never let cancer hold her down. Of the entire school year (she’s an Arabic teacher at a high-school), she only skipped two days. Two days during a 9-month treatment is truly amazing. And to top that off, her openness about what she was going through led to all the women in the school getting mammograms. One woman was able to detect her cancer and start early treatment as a result.

She’s very open about her experience, especially seeing the positive effect it had on other women around her. Three women at the school have since gone through the same thing, in addition to a male teacher who was diagnosed with prostate cancer. They informally refer to each other as the “Cancer Club” – a club of survivors that supports each other by shared experiences.

She shares some advice for other women about to go through breast cancer treatment. Hopefully her words will remind them that they are not alone and inspire them to keep on battling:

1- Everything begins and ends. Think of it like pregnancy as I did. You will go through pain for a few months, but then everything will return back to normal.

2- Keep your sense of normalcy. I didn’t want my children to feel like their lives were changing because I was sick, so I kept taking them to their activities and going to work.

3- Don’t let the opinions of other influence you. People still have a lack of knowledge about cancer. Cancer does not mean death! There’s a 90% survival rate, especially if the cancer hasn’t spread.

4- You have to keep your morale high. If you believe you will beat it, you will.

5- Always trust your instincts. If you feel something’s wrong but your doctor says it’s nothing, get a second opinion.

6- Your faith will strengthen you. I felt my connection to God grow and it felt like he was holding my hand during treatment.

As a healthy, glowing survivor, the only thing that remains is a sense of anxiety. The effect of such an experience is unfortunately bound to leave a mark. “The anxiety remains. There’s always that feeling. An anxiety that something bad might happen, that it might return,” she said.

We certainly hope not, and pray she stays healthy. I’m sure she is, and will continue to be, an inspiration to other women around her.

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A Few Minutes in Rita’s Wig

… and her glasses!

When I first heard about Rita and what she did, I knew I had to meet her. I didn’t know what to expect as I waited in a cafe in ABC. Would I immediately recognize her? Would she be wearing the wig? No pictures had been posted of her wearing her wig.. yet.

All of a sudden I was noticing every passerby’s hair. Was anyone around me wearing a wig? Would I be able to tell?

One thing I did notice was that most women had very similar hairstyles. Teens and younger women had straight brown hair (the kind that’ll poof at the very first sign of precipitation) with the occasional rebellious afros (me included). Older women fit into two main categories: fake blond with layered highlights (that if counted can reveal the woman’s true age) and the easy-to-maintain mom dos. You know the type – short with poofy bangs.

A few minutes later a short brown bob was walking towards me and I quickly recognized who it was from her smile.

Since Rita’s shaved her hair a few weeks ago, she’s reached out to several cancer centers in Lebanon. Among them, the Children’s Cancer Center by the American University Hospital in Hamra and the Tamanna Organization that grants wishes to critically-ill children in Lebanon. Her focus was initially to help children battling with cancer, but her eyes were opened to an unexpected reality. Children have a rather optimistic outlook towards their sicknesses and more strength than we are led to believe. It’s their parents and adults who actually have a harder time dealing with matters relating to cancer.

It doesn’t help that our culture is still very hush-hush about cancer. Patients hide their conditions from the outside world, as if it is something to be ashamed of. Living in shame leads to more isolation and a stressful recovery of constantly worrying over what others are going to think. Not healthy in the least bit when the patient’s only concern should be healing.

And that’s what Rita wants to change – both by the physical statement she’s making and through her upcoming projects with cancer associations in Lebanon.

After we’d had a chance to chat, the moment came for the wig to come off. It took no convincing whatsoever. “After all, how am I going to spread the message if people don’t see me without the wig?” was Rita’s response to quiet my own concern about the scene it might create.

Rita has gotten some pretty funny reactions so far (read more in her blog entry “My Take on the Wig). It’s expected that people would stare, but one guy literally fell off his seat once when she walked past! It’s ironic how women with ridiculously obvious cosmetic surgery won’t get a second look in Lebanon but then a woman with a shaved head is suddenly considered a “freak”. It’s about time we re-questioned our beauty standards here.

There we were, in the middle of a crowded cafe with Rita’s wig on a happy wig stand’s head and the camera flashing away. No one stared and people didn’t even seem to notice what we were doing. (Or so it seemed. Apparently we got a few shocked looks according to Rita, but I was too engrossed in taking photos to notice.)

Here’s a shot of Rita with her wig on – a first, exclusive shot!

We’d like to thank Rita for taking the time to meet with us and we wish her the best of luck on her future projects!

Keep up with Rita’s latest updates and projects on her blog.

Two in Every Sense of The Word

I’m not her first, but I hope to be her last.

Three years ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer and it’s sadly come back. As she undergoes chemotherapy today, she’s surrounded by music played by clumsy little fingers and an identical twin sister right by her side. Her sister was actually told to get the same hairstyle after she started wearing the wig recently. Their boss was so impressed that he not only offered to pay for the cut – but actually go with her to the hair salon to get it done!

He’s asked for a date since and still doesn’t know the truth about the wig..

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My First Wig!

I put on my first wig in 2006. It was during the time the woman who bought me was going through her chemotherapy treatment. At first I was just a wig stand, but we soon became good friends. We took turns wearing the wig. I’d wear it at night while she wore it during the day. I wish I could have told her that she looked beautiful, with and without the wig.

No one was supposed to know she had breast cancer. Cancer is still taboo in Lebanon but I don’t understand why. It’s become a reality that we must accept rather than hide.

I’ll be traveling from one woman’s home to another’s to share their stories with you. What’s the next wig I’ll be wearing? Keep posted 🙂

PS: Brown hair with highlights really brings out the color of my eyes, doesn’t it?