What do you lose when your hair falls out?

Sitting at her bedroom dressing table, Eve gazed at her long, flowing, golden brown hair in the mirror. As she brushed her hair with delight, she smiled in triumph, “Not one yet.” She loved her hair. Eve’s hair made her feel special and feminine. Her husband said her hair was beautiful, but Eve chuckled knowing how easy it was to please a guy about hair as long as it was long. Her girlfriends said her hair was great, so she knew it must be so.

On the day Eve began chemo, she pressed me about the possibility of losing her hair. “Almost universal with this regimen,” I remarked. Eve camped on the word “almost” and convinced herself she would be one of the few who would not develop alopecia – a new word to Eve and one she hated immediately. At the time of her second treatment three weeks later, Eve remained confident. Nothing had happened! So far, so good.

One week after her second round of chemotherapy, Eve noticed a few hairs on her pillow as she arose from bed. “Oops,” she murmurred. Reaching her dressing table, Eve picked up her favorite brush and began brushing her hair that extended halfway down her back. With the first stroke, a large clump of hair clung to the brush and then dropped to the table. There was no pain. Her hair just peeled off her scalp without any sensation. Eve gulped. With each succeeding stroke, more and more clumps of hair came out until all her hair lay in a pile on her dressing table. Eve looked up into the mirror. She was totally bald. Slumping down into her chair, Eve cried.

Eve lost her sense of self-worth that day. “My husband’s bowling ball has more hair on it than I have on my head,” she lamented. “I’m no longer special to anyone anymore, even to God.” I told Eve about a patient who brought into the office “every” hair she lost as part of her chemotherapy regimen. Shaking in my face a gallon-sized plastic bag containing an impressive amount of hair, the patient shouted, “See what you’ve done to me!” This story neither amused nor comforted Eve.

With her church-going background, I suggested Eve look into the Bible for consolation. Eve was intrigued, “Jesus must have said something about hair. His hair was long, wasn’t it? I’ll look in the book of Luke.” Eve was resolute she would find something in Luke, as his gospel account of Jesus’ life and teachings contains more references to women and women’s involvement in Jesus’ ministry than any other gospel account and is frequently called “The Ladies’ Gospel.”

At the next visit, Eve looked as if she had turned a corner emotionally. Smiling, she said, “I knew I’d find it in Luke.” Opening her Bible, she read to me: “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid, you are worth more (to God) than a flock of sparrows” (Luke 12:7).

It is easy to lose our sense of self-worth and self-confidence on any random day when something goes wrong. Each day has enough problems and worries of its own. How about adding to our daily dose of cares a cancer diagnosis and its potential for shortening one’s life, cancer treatment and its side effects, juggling a work and family schedule around cancer therapy, and holding on to one’s relationships with a husband and two daughters in the setting of a life-threatening illness?

Eve feared her hair loss was the ominous beginning of more trouble: “I didn’t have any nausea or anything, but what was going to happen now? I was afraid.” Eve needed to be reminded that day she was important to God. “If God has numbered each hair on my head, there must be a good reason why each has fallen out and what He intends to do with each one. And because He knows even every one of my hairs, I must be very valuable to Him. That’s good enough for me,” Eve said.

Eve wore a bright red scarf on her head to her next office chemotherapy visit. “There’s more to me than hair. And all the rest of me is in God’s hands,” Eve said with confidence. It took alopecia for Eve to understand that.

Dr. Delvyn C. Case Jr. is a hematologist/oncologist, writer, playwright, and consultant to the Department of Spiritual Care at Maine Medical Center in Portland.