I stared blankly at the screen, numb, while my husband tried to explain again the surreal website he had found.
“You put these ice caps on your head,” Gary said, “and then you won’t lose your hair.”
I scrolled down and saw photos of women who still had their hair after the ordeal of chemotherapy.
“Look at this one,” He pointed to a beauty with silky black hair.
But I was still reeling from my diagnosis and couldn’t get my head around the idea of going bald. Or of freezing my head. Or of having cancer. I was perfectly healthy. A bit of a health zealot, in fact.
“How does it work?”
“Well, we’d have to rent these caps, these blue ones. See?” He pointed to a gel pack shaped like a helmut.
“We’d freeze them with dry ice and put them on your head on chemo days. See,” he pointed again, “they have velcro straps to keep them on tight. The idea is that the chemo meds wouldn’t be able to circulate on your scalp, because your scalp would be frozen. And then you wouldn’t lose your hair.”
It seemed like we’d just found the almond-sized lump underneath the skin of my right breast, the one that had grown to a walnut in a couple week’s time. Now I was talking about freezing my head. My world was turning up side down.
“Sounds miserable. Does it work?”
“At least for some women. It’s worth a try.”
“How much does it cost?”
“Well, it’s a little pricey. The caps rent for $900 a month. Let’s see, you’ll be in chemo for 5 months. Look, don’t worry about it, we can afford it.”
Good God. Who spends that kind of money on hair? But if I didn’t, I’d be bald.
“Maybe I’ll use the wig in your mom’s closet. You know, the bee hive.” I took his seat at the computer.
“You should do it,” Gary stood over my shoulder. “Keeping your hair is going to make you feel less sick, and we can make it work.”
I kept reading. I guess it won’t hurt to learn about it.
The caps are chilled to negative 33 degrees centigrade and layered with dry ice in coolers according to precise instructions. I would need a laser thermometer, insulated gloves, and a gas mask. None of these supplies were even available in my rural community. The whole idea was beginning to look logistically impossible.
What kind of lesson would I be teaching our daughter? A good one, or a bad one?
“Your recovery time is going to go faster if you don’t loose your hair.” Gary had his credit card in hand. “Let’s try it.”
“I suppose it’s worth a shot.”
Gary started ordering. Since I hate math anyway, I didn’t add up the total and told myself it was within the perimeters of what we could afford.
“Get this!” Gary read. “You’re supposed to cram panty liners under the cap at your hairline to prevent frostbite. Can you believe that? Panty liners?”
“Medical innovation meets 1950.” I said. “Where are we going to find dry ice?”
“I’ll figure it out.” He was in problem solving mode.
A few days later, we wheeled our coolers into the hospital.
“Is that a liver?” some stranger asked us.
“And a couple of beers,” Gary flipped back, and I giggled at the guy’s bewildered expression.
In the chemo room, Gary put on his gas mask and opened the first cooler. Steam rose up like a cloud over a witch’s cauldron, dry ice mixing with the stale air of the hospital. His gloved hands grabbed a blue cap thick with white frost, and he wrestled it onto my head, synching it tight with velcro.
The shock nearly made me vomit, and I instantly understood the warning about frost bite. “Hand me a pantyliner, will you?” I jammed one over my hairline.
Twenty minutes later, he whipped off my cap which had warmed to a balmy -15 degrees. Ironically, chunks of my hair got caught in velcro, ripping precious stands from my skull.
“Hmmm, we’ll figure out a better way for the next one,” Gary brushed hairs off my blanket.
I could see pain behind his smile as he wrestled the new cap on. Seven hours later, when we took the final cap off, my head was numb. Then in two weeks, we did it all again.
I tried to be enthusiastic, but fatigue was taking its toll. The cost was weighing on my mind. And fumes from the dry ice were making Gary sick.
When we were home from that session, I combed out my hair after my shower.
“Hey, Gary, can you come here for a minute?”
I heard a spoon clink against a ceramic bowl. He must have been eating ice-cream.
We both stared at the sink. “Looks like a bird’s nest,” he said, grabbing blond strands off the porcelain and tossing them in the trash. “The lady said some shedding would be normal.”
“Can this much be normal?”
Gary didn’t say anything.
The next morning, my pillow case was covered with hair.
“That pile looks like a cat.” I said. “A small one.”
He smiled. “Just a kitten.”
In the mirror, I could see my scalp. Pretty soon, the little bit of hair I had left was clumped in three dreadlocks, dangling from a mostly bald head. Part of me was relieved. Maybe it’s a good thing.
As the sun started going down that night, I grabbed two pairs of scissors, one for my husband and the other for our daughter.
“Let’s cut it.”
Lauren lit up at the prospect of adventure before bedtime, grabbed her scissors, and headed to the back yard. The sky was streaky with pink, just a hint of coolness in the air.
“We’ll scatter it for the birds,” I said, and we watched my fragrant locks float away in the wind, a little treat for our feathered friends.