“That’ll go away,” Dr. Hope Rugo told me. It was my first visit with an oncologist after my breast cancer surgery.
I could hear a vacuum cleaner in the background, and janitors emptying trash cans. The doctor, whose day had probably started very early, was focused and unhurried, even though it had to be hours after her quitting time.
She was looking at the fur on my cheeks, whisper-soft and pure white but thick as shag carpet. My head was still nearly bald but I had grown plenty of hair on my face, hundreds of silk-like strands almost transparent in their delicacy. Facial hair is one of cancer’s almost comical cruelties. Almost comical.
Rugo was the first person to acknowledge out loud what I had chosen to ignore in the mirror and which my husband had the good sense not to mention. “You can have it waxed if you want,” she said. “There’s no medical reason not to.” I thought, “Nope, I’m not going to touch it.”
I couldn’t bear the idea of feeling the stings from the Vietnamese-speaking wax ladies ripping strip after strip of hot wax off my hairy face. “I’ve been through enough procedures to last a lifetime without volunteering for more,” I thought as the doctor continued to talk. I’ll just be a fuzz face from now on.
While my husband took notes and asked questions about what the doctor was saying, my mind continued to wander. Maybe I’ll join the circus. My face could be a profit center in a whole new lifestyle. Do circuses still offer employment to bearded ladies? How much longer would my hair have to grow? Would I have to dye it black?
I feel strong and healthy, grateful to be alive, but I also feel beat up from my year of cancer treatment. I don’t want to sit in a doctor’s office, a dentist’s chair, or even a waxer’s spa-like environment.
The soft music and tranquil massage chairs at those salons don’t fool me. Waxing hurts. Especially when it involves ripping out baby hair from a woman’s face. Aren’t we supposed to be the gentler sex?
The discussion with my oncologist was two years ago. Along with fingers permanently swollen from chemo, facial fur became part of my post-cancer look.
Lauren, my stylish daughter, likes to point the hairs out to me. She has a perfect view of them while I drive her to school. “It’s catching the sun, Mom,” she says, and I know what she’s talking about, although I pretend I don’t.
When I kiss her goodnight, my fuzz hits her creamy smooth skin long before my lips do. “Mom, it’s an inch long,” she giggles. I respond by snuggling her face in a dog-like fashion, furry and friendly.
Like a lot of women, I have my eyebrows waxed regularly. But cheek treatment? It’s too much.
“You need it,” Kathy says, her clipped Vietnamese accent enhancing the sense of urgency in her voice. Every time I see her, she presses me to get my entire face waxed. Kathy does my eyebrows and manages the nail place where Lauren and I sometimes treat ourselves to a mani-pedi. “Not yet,” I always respond. “I’m not ready.”
But today, I found myself in front of her shop just as the doors opened for business. I was supposed to have a meeting in that part of town, and it was cancelled at the last minute. So on a whim, I walked in. Kathy was waiting, and I guess I was ready.
She led me to the back room, to a table designed for women much shorter than I am. My feet dangled over the edge, and I twitched them nervously in anticipation of pain. Kathy readied the wax, wasting no time lest I change my mind.
Within seconds, I felt warm thick goo on my face and linen strips pressing firmly onto my skin. I heard the rip a split second before the sting hit. “Look, look!” Kathy exclaimed, showing me a strip with as much fur as a labrador’s blanket after a long nap. Horrifying.
But the strip of wax was another symbol that my disease was over. She slathered on the wax and peeled my cancer away.
Although I have three more years of hyper-vigilance before I’m medically cleared, I let something go today, mentally and physically. It hit the trash bin with the fur-infused wax.
In no time, Kathy’s work was finished. She smeared thick, shiny aloe gel over my swollen pink face and told me to go home.
Like most things we procrastinate about, it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought it would be. And now, when my hand inches up to my face, I feel smooth soft skin. But what I really feel is another long chapter in my life finally coming to a close.
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