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I was a freshman in college when I was diagnosed with stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I specifically remember that New Year’s Day, which also happened to be my best friend’s twenty-first birthday, as I sat in the doctor’s office receiving the news. What stands out most from the weeks following my initial diagnosis wasn’t fear so much as confusion. How could this be happening to me? At 18, I wasn’t ready for six months of chemotherapy.

My fear climaxed the moment my newly appointed oncologist told me the regime of chemotherapy in my immediate future would cause my hair to fall out. It might seem superficial, but there is a special kind of pain to hear as a young woman, “You are going to lose your hair.”

All my life I have proudly identified as a natural redhead. I got my hair color from my father, my curls from my mom. For the better part of my adolescence, my hair fell to my lower back. I affectionately remember my mom braiding it in pigtails in the mornings throughout elementary and middle school. More often than I am proud of it, I would complain about the nature of being strawberry blonde—being restricted to certain colors, having thick hair, having blonde eyebrows, so on and so forth. But my hair is what made me, me.

My hair did not magically fall out one day. I began treatment mid-January, and my hair gradually thinned week after week, treatment after treatment. Ordinarily, I would lose a normal amount of hair in the shower, but during treatment I was afraid to wash my hair, knowing I could anticipate large clumps in the drain. My friends and family would assure me—“you look fine” or “it doesn’t look that bad”—but I felt differently. Halfway through my six months of treatment, I felt as if I’d already lost my dignity as I ran my hand through my unhealthy, thinning hair.

One day in May I confided to a coworker about the insecurities I had about my hair, and she offered me something quite unexpected. “I’ll shave my head with you,” she told me. I was baffled she could so casually suggest a thing, as though it were as easy a decision as deciding what type of cereal to have for breakfast. I tried to let this slip from my mind for the rest of my shift, but later I got a text from her. It was a photo of her—without hair. I had not expected or anticipated anyone to do that, not even my best friends, no less a girl I barely knew. I was overcome by her courageousness. She was so beautiful in the picture and so joyful in her message that I couldn’t help but want to shave my head right then and there. And so I did. That night I sat on a piano stool in my home, and my mom shaved my head.

In the six months or so that I had little to no hair, I encountered a few strangers at work who would make comments about the “trend” of shaved heads at our workplace. These happenstances were sometimes difficult for me to handle; they were constant reminders that a piece of me was gone. Part of me was angry—angry that I had to face this humiliation. But I never anticipated how liberating it was to let go of something so vitally a part of me.

Losing my hair, and learning to live without it, was far from easy. It was by far the most difficult experience I have ever faced. What helped me to channel that anger and swallow my pride was my support system of family and friends. My girlfriends never failed to be by my side. I had constant emotional care and compassion from so many, strangers and acquaintances alike. My own mother, especially, who endured the same type of cancer twenty years before me, was my greatest mainstay.

It was these women who helped me to understand that what defines a woman transcends physical attributes. Opening the picture of my coworker with her head shaved was a brazen reminder that beauty radiates not from our outmost being but from what is within. In that moment I didn’t see a baldheaded person but a selfless young woman with a heart bigger than my own.

I began to realize that if that was the way I saw her, I could emulate her. My hair was only a piece of what makes me who I am. I began to appreciate that I wasn’t just a redhead. I was a daughter, a sister, a friend, a student, and a hard worker. Lacking hair became less humiliating and more empowering the more I focused on my ability to fight the cancer that caused me to lose my hair in the first place.

While losing my hair was an obvious, visible trial, so many women are struggling with conditions that compromise their ability to see themselves for their true worth. As women, we instill so much of our self-worth into our physical attributes—either our hair, our skin, our weight—and we lose sight of what truly defines us. But I have to ask, when we put so much self-worth into something that can be lost, what do we risk? I was so embarrassed and ashamed of how my hair looked that it sometimes inhibited me from being strong when battling my illness. It was only when I let go of the hair that was letting go of me that I finally found myself.

I learned what it meant to be a woman the night I shaved my head. Did my lack of hair make me less of a woman or less beautiful? Of course not. I was struck by the beauty of my friend who shaved her head for me, and in that moment, I learned that it was the beauty of selflessness that I had been looking for. True feminine beauty resonates from loving others. When we see the true beauty and worth of others, it becomes easier to see our own.

Today I am going on two and a half years cancer-free, and my hair has fully grown back. While I would never wish to relive the experience, I am grateful for the invaluable lesson it taught me about womanhood. I am grateful for all the amazing women in my life, especially my coworker and my mom, who taught me that there are far more invaluable things to being a woman than hair. Know that no matter your bodily circumstances and despite the battles you might experience with your health, you are not just your body. You are strong and relentless in mind and spirit. And that is worth celebrating.

Photo Credit: Horn Photography