How People React To My Son’s Chemo-Baldness

How People React To My Son’s Chemo-Baldness

By Nicole Scobie

0-6I hardly notice anymore that my son Elliot has no hair. I do notice people’s reactions when they see him, if we’re at a restaurant or a store, and his hat falls off, or he takes it off, since he doesn’t really care. Sometimes, there’s a double-take. I’m not always sure what people think. I guess, looking at him, you would know right away that he’s a cancer kid. Although you see a lot of kids with crew cuts and even shaved heads these days, he has those few little wisps of fur-like hairs that are the tell-tale signs of chemo treatment.

Every now and then the subject comes up when he’s around, but it doesn’t seem to bother him much. His first reaction to losing his hair was how funny it was that he looks like his dad now. I’m not sure Martin was ever so proud as that moment when Elliot saw his reflection and said in surprise, “Hey, I have almost no hair! I look like Papa!” then laughed and walked away. He has been relatively unaffected by the change in his looks. We’re careful, however, when the subject is mentioned and he’s around, to always say something positive about it. He’s only five-years-old, and not yet very aware of the importance people place on appearance, but he is at the age where he is starting to understand the meaning of “fitting in.”

Recently, a friend was visiting and mentioned that it looked like Elliot’s hair was growing back already (a temporary event since he’s still in chemo, sometimes it does seem to be sprouting up again like tiny weeds, then a week later he’s so bald his head shines). Both Martin and I chimed in with our automatic remarks, something like, “Yep, it’ll grow back at some point, but in the meantime, he’s so handsome with those big blue eyes.” Sometimes we talk about how nice a head shape he has, or how great his ears look. And it’s all true, too. We actually find him to be quite a good-looking kid. So we’re not lying or exaggerating his eye-beauty etc., it’s just a clever rebuttal, a re-direct.

But I actually don’t think the baldness issue is about looks, for most people. Even in the non-cancer world — you know, that world we all used to live in, going about our daily business naïvely thinking we were safe from … everything? Even in the non-cancer world I think any negative view of chemo-baldness is really an instinctive judgment about health, not beauty. People associate this type of baldness with being sick. And, to be fair, it is often a pretty accurate instinct. But the fact is, there are many times, despite those rotten cells causing trouble, when a person with cancer does not feel sick. At least not throw-up sick. Any of you out there by the way have levels or categories of sick? Like, throw-up-sick versus just lie-on-the-couch-too-tired-to-push-the-button-on-the-remote sick? Just curious, as I’m not the one with cancer in our home, I can’t judge for sure.

But since I do know that many times, a cancer-boy (or girl) does not feel very sick, we are sometimes out in public. Often I won’t take Elliot anywhere where there might be a lot of people, if the blood count is low. But other times, we do go to restaurants and stores, even the occasional playground if we’re feeling particularly invincible. And recently, that’s when I started to notice them. Well, the lack of them, actually. The others. The other baldies, like my son. I know the statistics: childhood cancer is quite rare, so bumping into another baldy while at the playground is probably unlikely. But adult cancer is really so common, comparatively … so where are you all? Before I hurt anyone’s feelings, I will get off my high horse and say right away, as I have told many people, that if what had happened to Elliot had happened to me I would be tempted to go into my room and hide under my blanket and come out two years later. On the other hand, if I could trade places with him and have this stupid cancer be in my kidney instead, I would do it in a heartbeat. But that’s not possible.

So we head out “into the world” today and I wonder where everyone is. I would love to bump into a bald person. Seriously. I mean, obviously, I am into balding men anyway, but man would I like to see a woman or man wearing a scarf or hat like Elliot. Or just nothing. A nude head, parading around proudly in public for all to see. Wow, would that ever make me happy.

But generally, we never do see other cancer-fighters out there. Until yesterday. When I spotted one. We were at the mall. It was raining out, and we got bored at home (just how many Legos does it take to build the Eiffel Tower, I will never know).

A woman came over and sat next to me on a bench near the kids playing area where Elliot was running around. She was wearing a long silk scarf beautifully wrapped around her head. She did look pale, and maybe a bit thin, but actually pretty good. I didn’t say anything, but was silently excited. How could I convey to her that I am also from “that world?” Damn my hair.

Elliot ran over to ask if we could get an ice cream. He was wearing the blue sunhat with the octopus on the front (by the way, the octopus must absolutely be placed at exactly the correct frontal position or a tearful crisis will ensue. Cancer reaction or normal five-year-old? Anyone?)

With his hat it’s hard to tell he’s bald. He stared blatantly at the woman. Then he turned to me and said, and I am sure he spoke at least 10 decibels above his normal voice volume: “Hey, she’s bald.” I started to feel a bit hot. The woman cleared her throat. She looked at him and smiled quietly. He took that as an opening for him to increase the volume by another 20 decibels or so and asked her, “How come YOU have no hair?”

Now, I knew why he’s asking. He wanted to chat with her about baldness the way he would otherwise chat with a friend about Playmobil. Baldness is familiar to him. If she had a visible scar he would have probably happily lifted his shirt up to show the one that stretches across his abdomen.

But the woman didn’t know that, she just probably thought he was another innocent five-year-old asking an innocent question, and in a show of remarkable patience and probably practice she calmly said, “Well, I have to take medicine that made my hair fall out. But it will grow back after a while.” Then she slowly got up to go while Elliot stared at her with his “duh … I knew THAT” look.

And just as she started to walk away he called after her. “Well it’s good that you have nice eyes!” And she turned and stared at him a bit.

I love him.

Nicole Scobie, mom to three great kids, one of whom is luckily in remission from stage 4 cancer of the kidney.

Subscribe to Brain, Child