Today, May 8th, 2017, is World Ovarian Cancer Day. The Foundation for Women’s Cancer reports that Latina women have lower overall incidence rates than white and African American women, but have the highest rates of cervical cancer of all groups of women. Latinas are also are more likely to die from cervical cancer than non-Hispanic whites.
These are scary statistics, but ovarian cancer is about more than statistics. I don’t have ovarian cancer, but it has affected my life and was ultimately part of the reason I decided to donate my hair.
Every time I walk into a beauty salon, I always seem to get compliments on my long, voluminous, brown hair. This has been going on ever since I was little. In elementary school, many of my classmates (especially the white girls) would ask to play with my hair. Most weren’t actually my friends, but hey, at least they liked something about me. And since my hair was “different” and got compliments, I’ve always seen it as one of my best features.
When I got to college, I made an unlikely friend— we’ll call her M. She wasn’t a college student but rather the wife of the marching band director. She had a great sense of humor, told the best stories, was always very kind, and definitely spunky. We also shared a similar sense of style, I know I want to dress as lovely as she did as I get older. She also loved my hair, and would constantly compliment it no matter how unkempt and sweaty it might have been. It became a”thing” between us as she’d write on my Facebook page leaving comments like, “Wow. You look gorgeous. And I have ALWAYS been jealous of your hair.”
When I got really sick with chronic illnesses and had to leave school, she was one of the most supportive people in my life, emailing me at least once a week. When I was able to return to school, we kept up with our weekly emails. Then, suddenly, they stopped for about a month. I was concerned so she eventually told me she had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society, ovarian cancer is of the most difficult cancers to catch, which in turn makes it extremely difficult to treat due to late stage diagnosis. Ovarian cancer also has the lowest survival rate of all reproductive cancers.
During this difficult time in M’s life, I made sure to keep in touch with her as much as possible. Most of my peers didn’t even know she was ill; even those who knew didn’t realize she had lost her hair. When I would see her, she would be wearing the most fabulous wigs. However, I kept thinking, “I wish I could just give her some of my hair.” I even told her so, but she joked it wouldn’t look good on her and that I should keep it. And of course, you can’t just cut off your hair and give it to a specific person. But it didn’t stop me from wanting to.
Over a year later, she went into remission after 30 chemotherapy sessions. I could not have been happier for her.
Unfortunately, that only lasted six months. And so then I cried with her. We kept in touch constantly that last year even though both of us were fairly sick. As I was planning a much-needed visit with her, my doctor told me I couldn’t make the trip. I made it anyway—not seeing her wasn’t an option.
I spent three more hours with her, trying my best not to cry. We talked about everything we could think of, reminiscing and laughing about our time together and all of the wonderful people we knew. The whole time I was there, she tried gifting me everything left in her closets, sending Mr. M back and forth and back and forth. I ended up with her favorite scarf, her favorite Hawaiian necklace, and an artful jaguar handbag; the only thing I wanted was more time with her.
The whole ordeal got me thinking about hair donation again. If you’re not sure what “donating your hair means,” it’s basically cutting off a set amount of inches of your hair in order to donate to charity. Hair donations typically go to a wig creation organization, who create free or low-cost wigs made from real, healthy human hair for those who have lost their own hair to alopecia, treatments from chemotherapy or radiation, or other reasons tying in with chronic illness. It all depends on what charity you donate to.
Donating your hair can be a very powerful movement. While some patients don’t mind being bald or wearing a headscarf, some prefer to wear a wig to help them create a sense of “normalcy” in their lives. Hair is a very personal thing, and many women, especially women of color, see it as their security blanket or their source of beauty.
I wanted to honor M in this very special way, so I asked my hairdresser what she thought about me donating my hair. My hair wasn’t currently long enough or healthy enough, so we made a plan. After some really intense treatments on my end, I felt good enough to start growing my hair. I grew it for eight months and kept haircuts to a minimum so that I could finally donate my hair.
After the first cut, I almost immediately regretted it, not because I didn’t want to donate my hair but because I was weary of such a big change. Without my glasses on, I couldn’t even see what it looked like until I was ready to walk out the door. After some adjustment, it didn’t seem so bad and I really was happy to have two thick ponytails to donate.
My biggest tip: I went in to my salon trusting that hairdresser on what needed to be done for donation. I highly recommend doing your research beforehand, and really knowing how much you want to cut off, where you want to donate, and what that charity requires.
All women are affected by ovarian cancer, and all women are at risk of ovarian cancer, no matter your ethnicity or age. Early diagnosis vastly improves treatment options and chances of survival. You can learn more about which symptoms to never ignore at World Ovarian Cancer Day’s website, and you can learn more about donating your hair here. If donating your hair isn’t for you, find other ways to give back here.