I ordered my wigs before I lost my hair, with the attitude that it would be fun to try something new.  With different styles and colors, I could choose a different wig for whatever mood I was in that day.  Who knows, maybe even after cancer there may be an occasion where I want to be a sultry flaming red head.
I ordered three different wigs, two cheaper ones, a red one named Sugar Rush and brunette one named Cosabella and a more expensive blonde wig called the Scene Stealer.  I even considered ordering a blue one in a bobbed hairstyle just for fun called the Go, Go Girl.
But wearing them out in public made me feel as though I was dressing up for Halloween.  It was just as if I was wearing a rainbow colored clown wig or an Orphan Annie wig.  And physically it felt like I was wearing a mop on my head, hot, and itchy and after chemo my hair literally hurt for several days just before more of it fell out.

A few days after shaving my head we made a trip to Montana give a Precision Planting clinic.  It was my first trip off the ranch to be seen by the rest of the world without my hair and I was so excited about the opportunity the trip gave me to reconnect with one of my best friends. 

Our first night in Billings we were to have dinner with clients and I decided to don the brunette Cosabella for the occasion.  I was so uncomfortable in it that I would fidget with it creating tangles in its nylon threads and had to get up and use the restroom several times to make sure it hadn’t slipped out of place or to make sure it didn’t look like I was wearing a wig.  Each time I looked in the mirror I wondered, “Who is this person?”  I was so used to seeing the same girl staring back at me each day and it was still a shock to not recognize myself.  I ended up leaving the dinner early to go back to my hotel room with my confidence shot.
To me my hair had been a defining feature, something I considered central to my identity and a symbol of femininity that was important to me working in a career field with mostly men.  And it was finally one of the few things about my looks that I liked and was confident about. Loosing my hair was a reminder that my cancer was real and my otherwise very healthy body was sick.

Not to mention I have this huge scar across my scalp from “inappropriately” playing on the beach in California.  Normally I am proud of my scars, to me they are proof that I have taken a risk, taken a chance to fully live life, even if it at the time it was a stupid thing to do.  But they certainly weren’t beauty marks.
I purchased the wigs or ‘cranial prosthesis’ so that I wouldn’t be cancer identified because often cancer patients are made to feel it’s socially inappropriate to be a cancer patient.  You certainly don’t see many out and about donning a bald head.  We are expected to file away the reality of the situation  in some far-off emotional safe so that others can feel comfortable. 

When you tell people you have cancer everyone who loves you is freaked out.  Friendships shift.  Family roles and dynamics change.  You find out pretty quickly who you can really count on and who you can’t.  True colors begin to appear like a neon sign.

It has been extremely interesting to me to see how others react to the news.

People’s body language reveals a lot about our society’s preconceived prejudices about cancer.  You’re often treated like you have a scarlet letter C pinned to your chest. 

I was surprised by how many people needed me to make them feel better about my cancer.  I found myself comforting friends and loved ones as they processed my news which has been a good lesson to me in setting boundaries. 

For one family member it has brought up unresolved issues from their cancer treatment that often get projected onto me.  I read in one of my cancer books that “cancer patients go through the same post-traumatic stress disorder as soldiers or rape victims.  Cancer as trauma is multifaceted, includes multiple events that can cause distress, and like combat, is often characterized by extended duration with a potential for recurrence and a varying immediacy of life-threat. (Smith 1999)”

Yet, no two cancers are the same, and neither are the experiences that surround them or how we each as individuals choose to deal with them.

The worst is when others made my cancer all about themselves.  I wonder sometimes at the human urge to attack the vulnerable in order to make themselves feel better about themselves.  These people like to decide who deserves their own pain, who is owed their own suffering and are just emotional vampires.

Cancer is not a punishment because of my previous wild and crazy ways.  It’s not a disgrace.  It isn’t a curse passed down through generations.  There is nothing taboo about it and it certainly isn’t contagious.

Then there are those who I know have good intentions but come across as patronizingly pitying you. Don’t say things like oh, you poor thing.  Don’t pity me or tell me you know how I feel.  I am not a victim I am a survivor and I certainly don’t pity myself and you have no clue how I feel, nor do I expect you to. 

One of my greatest supporters has been my 18 year-old son.  When I spoke to him about shaving my head he said, “I have no doubt mom, that you of all people can rock your bald head.”  He never fails to remind me of who I truly am!

So day two of our Montana trip on our way to Ft. Benton, I made sure we stopped at one of my favorite western wear stores in Harrlowton, Ray’s.  There I purchased a new silk wild rag and a new raspberry Stormy Cromer, determined to embrace my chemo baldness with a sense of adventure and pride, cowgirl style.  And in some small way it was an empowering choice to reinvent myself.  It was one small thing I could do to prove to myself that cancer wouldn’t consume my life and hold me back.

I was shocked by the overwhelmingly positive response I got that night wearing the new wild rag, especially since I had been so consumed with anxiety and fear about losing my hair in the first place.  I was told by several people that night I was beautiful.  I was even hit on, and continue to get hit on every time we have gone out since, leading me to believe that our vulnerabilities and imperfections makes us even more approachable, more human.  I am beginning to learn that the most beautiful asset a woman can posses isn’t her hair, her breasts, or curvy figure, it’s truly her imperfections that make her unique.
I have also learned that people will take your lead.  Most people take their cues from you.  When I walk into a room thinking yes, I have cancer, I’m a survivor and I’m fabulous, others have a tendency to treat me that way too.  If I deal with it well, so will they.  Which is pretty powerful and applicable to every other area of my life cancer or not.

It has also a powerful reinforcement about the importance of authenticity.

I’m not interested in engaging with the rest of the world or connecting with others on a superficial level.  Each of us wants and needs to be seen for our uniqueness, for our unique skills and talents as well as our pains and lessons learned and the expansive capacity we have for experiencing beauty and joy. 

Setting aside our roles, masks of personality and false fronts of always being okay, being emotionally congruent, genuine and telling the truth are major components of authenticity and integrity.

The greatest gift we can bring to any relationship is being just who we are.  Giving ourselves permission to just be who we are can also have a healing influence on our relationships.  When we relax and be ourselves, people often feel much better around us than when we are rigid, nervous, repressed and pretending to be something we aren’t.  Who we are is all we can be, it’s who we were intended to be, and has always been more than good enough!

I think there comes a time in everyone’s lives when it is more painful to not be yourself than it is to be fully yourself.  It is important that we become willing and ready to take the risk of being authentic, because in order to continue to grow and live with ourselves we realize we must liberate ourselves.  We have to stop allowing ourselves to be so controlled by others, their opinions and expectations and be true to ourselves, regardless of their reactions.

The relationships that end, would have ended anyway, the relationships that don’t are nurtured by our authenticity, and it is these people who love and respect us more for taking the risk of being who we truly are and this is where real connection and intimacy begin and where we find relationships that truly work.

While scary at times, it truly is empowering to feel what you feel, say what you want, be firm about your beliefs, and value what you need – to own your power to be fully yourself.

While I have yet to fully embrace my new Styrofoam headed life, I have certainly learned some valuable lessons and am truly coming into my own in the process.  Everything in life is a process.  Change takes time as well as kindness and self-compassion.  And who knows Halloween is just around the corner.  I’m thinking of going as Lady Godiva if I have to wear a wig.  Unfortunately in this neck of the woods they won’t let me ride my horse through the bar.  (Written for Montana Ranch Girl)
 

vanity

10/23/2013

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I’ve never considered myself a vain person.  I’ve always been just as comfortable with myself covered in mud and manure as I have been dressed up.  But the day my hair started falling out in clumps by the handfuls from the chemo, I became vain.  Fortunately, it was also the day that two of my wigs came in the mail, and unfortunately they arrived alongside a copy of the French edition of Marie Claire, that I am featured in. 
In June, before my cancer diagnosis, I was interviewed for an article on working cowgirls.  Reporter Catherine Castro and photographer Amelie Debray from Marie Claire magazine in Paris, France came to the ranch and spent three days with me.  We had 820 head of yearling heifers to work during their visit.  The first day it rained all day and I was a drowned rat.  The second day I went to work all dolled up, ready to be photographed and my horse and I went down in the feedlot slop five minutes into the day.  I was baptized by mud and manure.
I took great pride in not being vain.  With that many head of cows to work in two days you don’t go home and clean up, you cowgirl up and get the job done. 

The final day I got to truly be a model for a day.  I can honestly say I much prefer working cows!  I couldn’t believe how self conscious and insecure I became in front of the lens of the camera.  I kept thinking to myself that my tall, leggy, golden palomino Dutch Warmblood horse that the photographer choose for the shoot, is much sexier than me and much more of the taste of the Parisian women reading the magazine.
I think we are all a little vain and all struggle with our body image at some point in life.  Why else would we worry so much about all our physical imperfections?  On some level it’s a measure of self worth to care how I present myself to the rest of the world, but it can become unhealthy when I start comparing myself to Victoria Secret models or the model on the cover of Marie Claire or even the readers of Marie Claire France. 

Especially as women it’s impossible in our culture not to learn the lessons beauty teaches us every day.  We’ve learned that the most beautiful women in the world are the most successful, they are the best.  The images on TV and in print media declare this is the American standard, this is what you should want to look like.  This is the ideal, which is why they can appear in public nearly naked, because they have nothing to hide, because their bodies are perfect.

In my naive way, I’ve always thought of vanity as the evil queen in Snow White, gazing into her mirror, desperate and willing to kill to be the most beautiful woman in the land.  To me vanity was not hating the cellulite on my ass and thighs or being bald and feeling worthless for being overweight or ugly.  Instead it was something sad and/or embarrassing for different reasons, because I couldn’t love and accept myself as I am.
After a long conversation with one of my best friends, I cowgirled up and headed to the bathroom to shave my head.  As my long blonde hair fell to the floor, with the magazine in the other room with my photo across from a Prada ad mocking me, I couldn’t hold back the tears.  I was terrified of how others were going to react, especially terrified of how my fiancée would react.   Would he still want to marry me without hair?  Would he be so repulsed that he would no longer want to make love to me?  I had created a whole scenario in my head that was much worse than reality.  I let my mind wander down the path of self-obsession and the results were torturous.
Then the following question popped into my head – Why do we look at ourselves through this distorted lens and focus on things that are truly unimportant, such as hair?

My hair doesn’t define who I am as a person, it does make me any more or any less of a person. But that didn’t help me feel much better.  I came to understand the behind out veils of vanity lies fear.  The fear of not measuring up to our own or other people’s standards.  The fear of when we are completely stripped down to the true essence of who we are as a human being that we may be unlovable.

I then realized that I didn’t feel insecure the first two days of being photographed for the magazine article.  I was happily doing the work I love, fully engrossed in my job, concerned more with my horse and the cows and getting to know Catherine and Amelie, who have become my friends, than I was of what anyone else thought of me. 
When you are open to truly connecting to those around you (even if it’s a cow or a horse) and making this world better, you worry less about your hair or your cellulite, because you realize that what’s most important is truly seeing another as a human being, how we look or what size we are is truly insignificant.  It is from that place that we rise above the gossip, the comparisons and the fear.
Maybe the most important lesson I am learning is that the remedy for insecurity is compassion, not only for others but first and foremost for yourself.
I don’t want to look like a French Marie Claire model, it’s really hard to pull a calf, let alone saddle your own horse when you are rail thin with no muscle tone.  And maybe that is vanity, the seed of choice and personal preference.  My own stubborn personal preference for myself that gets a little stronger each day as I treat myself with compassion and clear away the self-hatred and self-doubt.  If I am vain, I choose this kind of vanity.  The kind that involves persistently, looking at myself with love and compassion, selfishly looking into the mirror until I can not only accept but love what I see.  (Written for Montana Ranch Girl)
Nietzsche said vanity is “the fear of appearing original: it is thus a lack of pride, 
but not necessarily a lack of originality.”
 
 
As I headed south last week for my second round of chemo, a strange brew of love and sorrow flowed within me.  Love for the rural lifestyle I live and sorrow for the losses left in Atlas’s aftermath. The sunflower fields where I stopped and took photos in early September were absolutely decimated, fields of corn with thousands of dollars of crop sitting in them can’t be combined, yards and shelter belts looked like a tornado hit them; and then I got south of Hoover, SD and my heart truly broke open, tears rolled down my cheeks as I saw dead cows six to seven deep in the ditch, more dead cows than I could count in an icy grave of a stock dam, and then a dump truck pulled out on the highway in front of me full of dead stock and I had to pull over.
We were fortunate and lost only a few head, and were out of power for 11 days, but thankfully had generators to weather the storm, so the true impact on South Dakota ranchers hadn’t really hit me until I saw it with my own eyes.
Picture
The main road into our ranch the afternoon of October 13, 2013.
I pulled into Rapid City, SD feeling emotionally raw like one of the down power lines snapped during the storm, lying exposed on the ground.  In town I set out to run some errands.  My first stop was the fabric store.  I choose several fabrics to make scarves for my now bald head.  While at the counter having my fabric cut, I began visiting with the woman cutting my fabric and another customer and her daughter.  We talked about what I had seen on my drive down as I tried not to burst into tears in the store and then our conversation turned to the topic of cancer.  The woman cutting my fabric shared with me and the other customer that her husband had cancer and he was losing his battle against it and that very soon they would be making a final trip to visit loved ones and say goodbye.  The other customer who was there shopping for material to make herself a Wonder Woman Halloween costume, then shared with us the scar across her neck from her battle with thyroid cancer that is non-curable.  She truly is a Wonder Woman.
I was immediately touched by their stories and the courage it took them to be vulnerable enough with a complete stranger to share a part of themselves with me.  I was also painfully aware of the meagerness of my own perceptions of most people, how little of others souls I normally allow to touch my own, how important it is to see each other as human beings first, and how often I make judgments or assumptions about others that diminish their humanity.  I have been asleep to the truth of who others really are, sleepwalking through life in the smug complacency of daily living, dumb to the better dreams and goodwill of each person.

A lot of people are often in pain.  When you are healthy, you think cancer is so far away.  But when you get sick, you realize that it’s all around, you just have to open your eyes.  I think one of the lessons of tragedy is to feel compassion for one another. Tragedy also brings to the forefront what is truly important – how precious your life is, how lucky you are to be alive and how important it is to love one another, because in the end what matters most is how much we loved.

Tragedy also calls each of us to meet the bad in the world with the good in our own hearts.  One of the great things about being a part of a ranching community is that helping our neighbor is a way of life.  The out pour of support from other ranchers is phenomenal, with ranchers in other states donating heifers and large donations to the Ranchers Relief Fund.  It makes me proud to be a part of such an amazing community and I personally hope to be able to find a way to do the same for other cancer patients, because cancer isn’t about a diagnosis; it’s about what you do with it.  (Written for Montana Ranch Girl)
Picture
Photo of sunflower fields taken in September.
 
 
It’s being called one of the worst blizzards in South Dakota’s history.  Here at the ranch we received 24 inches of very wet snow, Rapid City, SD got 31 inches and Lead/Deadwood, SD a record 43.5 inches.  Here in the northwest corner of the state and other Black Hills communities, the storm caused collapsed roofs, damage to crops and livestock, extended power outages, and damage from felled trees.
South of us in the heart of the storm, lost livestock, drifting with 60 mile per hour wind gusts and blinding snow, were driven with the storm, trailing over buried fence lines.  Those that made it through the blizzard, are still lost or stranded.  And reports of hundreds of head of livestock that didn’t make it, are being reported.
We are still without power and days away from getting it.  There are reports of more than 1500 snapped power poles in our area alone.  Fortunately after two days without power we now have a generator.
One of the endearing things about living in rural South Dakota is that in circumstances of extreme stress such as during natural disaster like winter storm Atlas, there are moving accounts of people going out of their way to help others.  It’s interesting to me how feeling vulnerable breaks down the walls we put up to keep others from getting too close and leads to greater generosity and helpfulness. (Written for Montana Ranch Girl)
 
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