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FEATURES Sep 16 2012 2:33AM

When Transitioning is Not a Choice: How I Survived Breast Cancer Twice

By Carla Hill
I look back on my life thinking that I was so good! I didn’t drink, smoke or dabble in drugs as a teen. The same was true when I entered college. Except for late night Soca and Reggae fueled parties, I had no bad habits that would have seemed to be a threat to my health. I expected to graduate from Florida State University and begin a fabulous, single life that would be informed by the fashion magazine clippings that I have been collecting since middle school.
On the eve of our graduation from FSU, and despite the intimate knowledge of my fight with an obscure kidney disease (Wegerner’s Granulomatosis), my boyfriend Marlon asked me to be his wife! We were married in 1998. I was awarded a Fulbright Memorial Fund Scholarship to Japan later that year. When I returned home, I began to feel terrible. After almost 8 years of fighting, my kidneys had had enough; I went into kidney failure and immediately started dialysis. After 11 months of dialysis, a transplant match was found! I received my new kidney on March 19, 2000. I had been sick for so long, I looked forward to living normally.
Unfortunately, I experienced a new health scare in 2005. I felt a lump in my breast just before a cousin’s wedding. At the age of 33, a mammogram and ultrasound confirmed that I had Stage 2 breast cancer. I could have sworn that you were only supposed to go through one major health scare and/or surgery in a lifetime. A kidney transplant AND cancer?
My husband and I listened intently as my oncologist laid out the game plan to eradicate the cancer from my body. I decided to have a total mastectomy of my right breast because that was the best way to make sure that all of the cancer would be gone. And then I heard the words, “You know you will lose your hair.” All of my work toward this Barbie dream hair was about to fall out in patches all around me. I remembered my mother’s courage through her battle with breast cancer. She did whatever she needed to do to remain on this earth for her family. I knew that my life was more important than my hair or a breast.
I decided early on that I did not want to wear a wig. At the time, I worked with children as a mental health counselor. I thought the wig would seem too false. I used hats (Kangol) and big hoop earrings as my work “uniform.” On date nights and special occasions I went bald and accessorized with MAC #7 eyelashes – a gift of encouragement from one of my best girlfriends.

If you are newly bald or in a “peach fuzz” phase, I recommend getting in the habit of giving yourself scalp massages. It’s important not to be afraid of your beautiful, hairless head. Women have been programmed to see their hair and breasts, for that matter, as the main symbols of their femininity. I was afraid to look at myself and to touch my own skin. I knew, though, that I was still in there! Touch your scalp and give it the same attention you gave it when it was covered in hair. It is important to reconnect with yourself in this way.
I do not recommend heavy oils when you are bald. Your skin can be sensitive during and shortly after chemotherapy. Heavy use of oils may cause blocked pores that can lead to break outs. A dime size amount of your favorite natural oil or hair dressing once or twice a week is enough to keep your scalp from drying out. If you are not wearing a wig, wear a hat or scarf to protect your scalp from the sun. If you are rocking the bald look as your everyday style, consider extending your sunscreen to your head as well. You are wearing sunscreen every day, right?
Change in hair texture and color is common with many survivors who have gone through chemotherapy treatments. I used to have thick hair that grew in long waves. After chemo, my hair was less thick started to grow in medium sized curls. Finding the right hair product is important. Products with natural ingredients were (and still are) a priority for me whenever possible. I wore a close cropped natural look for many years. At a shorter length, Carol’s Daughter Hair Milk Leave-In Conditioner (also available at Target) worked well to moisturize and define my teeny, tiny curls. A moisturizing pomade (like Mimosa Hair Honey, also at Target) also helped to keep my look styled all day. I will reiterate that a light hand should be used with oils and hairdressings. Too much oil makes your hair look limp overly greasy.
Sulfate-free shampoos followed by a good conditioner have given me the best results at all hair lengths. When hair is really short, you can get away with washing every day. As the hair gets longer, you should consider washing 2-3 times a week to avoid dryness. Now that my hair has been growing out for a year, I wash 1 -2 times a week depending on my need to get rid of product build up.
I was diagnosed with and survived breast cancer a second time in 2007. This time it was found in my left breast. No chemo was necessary. I again chose mastectomy to be sure that all of the cancer was removed. By my second cancer I understood that cancer survival began with getting my mental game in order before anything else. I still cry at times when I think about the health issues that I have gone through. It is natural to experience a sense of loss for your breasts, hair or your life before diagnosis. All of these experiences make us who we are and are a part of important milestones in our life. It’s important, however, to make the decision not to remain in the sad moments. Give yourself no more than two repeat plays of “All Cried Out” by Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam and then think about how you can use this “new normal” to design a fresh, new chapter and experiences in your life.
The sad moments have become less for me over the years. I also appreciate that in order to have a sad moments, I’ve got to be alive to experience it! Cancer warriors and survivors know more than anyone else how fortunate we are to be here with the people we love. Don’t waste a moment on anything that sacrifices the joyful moments of grace in your life.

You can follow Carla on Twitter at on Twitter @brstlssbeauty


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