Valeska Pretelt and I exchanged emails through a friend five years ago. We found eachother again on social media, and Five years later, we are in New York City, at The Wing, meeting for the first time. This season, Valeska reached out to loyal nana about sharing a personal essay about her deep connection with her hair, the cancer that took it away, and the acceptance, awareness, and strength that grew it right back....
"I was diagnosed with breast cancer at 27 and the only thing that mattered to me was how that diagnosis would affect the warped love affair I had with my hair. As a Latina with thick curly hair growing up in damp sticky Miami, I convinced myself, from a very young age, that I needed to tame my mane into something that resembled the opposite of its natural coiled state. This essay dives into how losing my hair, something that had brought on so much frustration, anger, and self-doubt, weirdly enough gave me the space to grow and accept, not only my hair but also life as it comes, no matter the circumstances..."
I was 12 and getting ready to go out in my childhood best friends room. It was routine that she, her sister, and I would deck our pre-pubescent bodies out in roll-on body glitter and threads from Contempo Casuals or Wet Seal in preparation for their mom to chauffer us to the mall where we would direct her to drop us off far enough so that we could make an entrance without a trace that an adult had ever actually dropped us off. “I’m not going out if I don’t get this perfect,” I would say to my two comrades as I wrung a silver dollar’s sized glob of gel into my hands and aggressively slicked it back from the top of my widow's peak to the ends of my chestnut mop. The end result would be a bun that would sit right at the crown of my head. Not a centimeter higher or lower. I had my middle school years as a ballerina and a dictator for a teacher to thank for picking up exactly where the crown of one's head is stationed.
I remember being so hard on myself to get this right. As if my world would crumble and I would be exposed as the curly haired freak I really was sans gel and bun. I tied a thick black hair elastic around my ponytail at least 3 times and was always very pleased if I could manage to get it around a fourth time because this indicated a slight cut in the circulation to my brain. (That’s when you know you’re doing it right.) Then came the bobby pins one by one creating my perfect little circle of a masterpiece. Any loose hairs would be spritzed down with herbal essence hairspray. Success. And when it wasn’t I would throw a hissy fit until I calmed down and tried again because let’s face it, of course, I was going out.
This song and dance went on until I discovered how to blow out my hair and then a new and improved set of allies were introduced to my world. Move aside gel, see ya hairspray! How I wish I had learned sooner that with the help of a round brush, frizz-ease, and a hair dryer I held the power to transform myself into the girl I was truly meant to be, one with straight hair. Magic. Like steaming the wrinkles out of a shirt. By this point, you could say I was a slave to my hair and its routine. For the better half of my life, I built the majority of my sense of self on whether or not my hair was fitting the standards that mattered to me and that I thought mattered to everyone around me.
In my early twenties, my hair grew to a length that I deemed semi-acceptable to wear in its natural state. Around this time I also decided to leave the humid temperatures of my South Florida hometown and venture to places where seasons are a thing. I was relishing experiencing life in a different city and to top it off, fall and winter weather were treating my mane like its long lost BFF. I was a new woman with newfound hair purpose and after bouncing around for a couple of years I finally graduated to New York. I had no job, just some savings and a small network of friends from back home who would chaperone me through the dos and don’ts of NY living.
I was 27, and three months into my life as a NY resident I landed what was my dream job at the time. Or at least the job that was going to catapult me in the general direction of my dream job. Did I mention my hair? It was basically mermaid length and I had a very decent ombre situation happening (it was 2012). There were literally people stopping me on the street to complement its current state. Ok maybe 3 stops total, but those 3 stops contributed to the boldness that was starting to creep up intrinsically just by shacking up with NY. I was living my best life and felt like those years of moving around and figuring out where I wanted to end up had paid off. About midway through this 27th year, after a brief bout with a ruptured ovarian cyst that led to a follow-up visit with my gynecologist, I was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma. AKA breast cancer. It sounds fast because in my mind it all happened at lightning speed.
“How have you felt in regards to the possibility of having to go through chemo?” my therapist asked gently. “Well we don’t know for sure that that’s even going to be necessary” I replied defensively. How dare she make that assumption and challenge me to work out those kinds of thoughts and feelings? Alas, I underwent surgery for a mastectomy of my right breast and lymph node removal and was officially diagnosed with stage 3 Breast Cancer. So yes, chemo would be necessary. From the moment I received my biopsy results right through the realization that I would 100% need chemo all I kept thinking was, ‘Take my breast! Take it! Just please leave my hair’. That scene from Forgetting Sarah Marshall when Russell Brand’s character is forced to wear that god awful Tommy Bahama shirt and then at dinner, the waiter conveniently spills wine over it and Russell’s all, “Oh no, not the shirt. Take my eyes, but not the shirt,” kept playing over in my head.
I never had or wished for large breasts. Neither my boobs nor their size was ever a determining factor in my identity. My hair was my everything. My partner in crime since birth. It was a source of frustration, hope, happiness, dissatisfaction, and confidence all rolled into one. To have to let it go and succumb to what could possibly be on the other side of that was unthinkable. I was in the bathroom at work when I gently flipped my hair and felt the first strands disengage effortlessly from my head. I went numb. “The” moment had arrived and I wasn’t quite sure how to assimilate it. I called my mom when I got back to my desk and gave her an update.
I had done my groundwork week’s prior in preparation for “the” moment and enlisted a wig maker (who came highly recommended) to create a custom piece, which I would wear to work every day. On the weekends I would scarf it. (Side note: wigs are really F expensive!) Said wig was conveniently ready days after those first strands started to fall out. A good friend accompanied me on the journey to pick it up. This wig maker’s studio had a hair salon type set up and upon our arrival, I sat in the chair and asked her to please shave my head. I’d like to tell you that this experience in itself was jarring or that it evoked some kind of grand emotion in me but it was actually pretty anti-climactic. It wasn’t until my friend and I left the studio, wig in hand, and started walking that I had the breakdown moment I was waiting for. We were in the middle of union square and I broke. The fuck. Down. “I’m so ugly. This wig looks ridiculous. It’s not me,” I sobbed. And it wasn’t me. I felt like an imposter every time I put it on my head but I was determined to maintain a beacon of normalcy during that period and this meant that very few people at work would ever know what I was going through.
After chemo came the reconstructive part of my surgery followed by 28 consecutive rounds of radiation. Throughout the course of this year, I longed for a bad hair day. Frizzy hair, curly hair, short hair, split ends. I would take any and all of it. I didn’t really give myself an opportunity to feel bad about what was happening to me internally because I couldn’t really come to grips with why it was happening. Cancer is weird like that. All of a sudden I was diagnosed with this life-threatening reality but before receiving word that my whole life was about to be flipped turned upside down I felt and functioned fine. Had that cyst not led me to my gynecologist would I have eventually felt these lumps on my own? It was even suggested that due to my age and family history it was probably nothing but at the same time, I was advised I had nothing to lose by getting a mammogram. Needless to say, I am forever indebted to that cyst. It changed the course of my life and without its blare of a warning sign, who knows?
Throughout the course of my year in treatment, I was flooded with well wishes and people praising my “bravery.” As lovely as their sentiments were I had a very hard time accepting that I was any kind of hero. All I could think when I received this praise was how surprised they’d be with themselves in the face of something that seems unimaginable. It’s the human spirit’s instinct for survival to meet a disease like this head on. At least this is the only way I allowed myself to perceive and get through an experience I had very little control over. All I could really control were my own thoughts.
My hair, as hair does, started to grow back slowly. Eventually, I had a pixie cut and ditched the wig altogether. I would catch myself at work, in meetings wrapping my index finger through the tiny tendrils that were sprouting and taking up their much-anticipated residency on my head.