More than hair: Cancer researcher with cancer writes about identity

A cancer researcher with cancer writes about family, identity and being outed by her own hair
Dr. Kiran Dhillon
Dr. Kiran Dhillon, with the short pixie haircut she got before starting chemotherapy in the hopes that it would soften the blow when she started to lose her hair. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Editor’s note: Dr. Kiran Dhillon, a 37-year-old postdoc studying chemotherapy resistance in breast and ovarian cancers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, was diagnosed with breast cancer herself in March. She is undergoing treatment at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. This is the first installment of an occasional series chronicling her experience with ductal invasive carcinoma.

As long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with my hair. I was born into a Sikh family and keeping all hair in its natural form is of paramount importance to practicing Sikhs, who believe in keeping the body in the state that God created it. Men, as well as some women, wear turbans to keep their hair tied and clean, and also as a symbol of their Sikh identity. This is what I was taught growing up in India and then after we moved to the United States. 

But as I got older, I had other ideas about what I wanted to do with my hair. In short, I wanted to cut it and have cute haircuts like my friends. Knowing the importance of hair for my family, especially for my father, I couldn't quite muster the courage to ask. I knew how he felt about it.

As time went on, somehow my mother got permission for my sister and me to finally be allowed to shave our legs so gym class wouldn't be quite so embarrassing — kids can be mean and not very understanding of other cultural norms.

A few years later, I finally began to broach the subject of cutting my hair with my father. I came up with all sorts of excuses about why I should be allowed. I told him my thick hair, which came down to my waist, was so heavy it gave me headaches, that it was so long I sat on it and that it was too hard to manage. The one reason I didn't use was, of course, that I wanted to cut my hair to keep it how I wanted  — me, not someone who lived long ago and wrote the religious texts. 

Finally, my father gave in. 

Kiran Dhillon
Kiran Dhillon, when she was in 11th grade, before her first haircut Courtesy Dr. Kiran Dhillon

Admittedly, my first haircut wasn't a pretty one. My sister cut it straight across about halfway up my back with a pair of dull scissors. But it didn't matter what it looked like. I finally felt liberated!

In the years since, I've never let it get much longer than shoulder length. I half-joke with my friends that when it gets to be a little below my shoulders, it reminds me of my “oppressed period.”

I've tried all sorts of hairstyles over the years — bobs, perms, flipped out, flipped in, layers and bangs. But the one hairstyle I'd never had the courage to try was bald.

That is about to change.

In the midst of my obsession with how I wanted my hair and why, the one thing I never considered was that I would lose the option of choice, for which I fought so hard. 

Cancer took that choice away. I was diagnosed with breast cancer on March 10. I think, or rather hope, I'm one of the lucky ones. I found the beast early (stage 1) during a self-exam and have a very good prognosis. I had surgery and still have to jump through the hoops of treatment — chemotherapy and radiation.

I know all about breast cancer — my job is to study chemotherapy resistance in breast and ovarian cancers at Fred Hutch. I know the statistics and facts, but when my doctor called me to tell me I had cancer, my first thought was “I’m going to die.” In that moment, there was no room for rational thought.

Now that I've had time to get used to the diagnosis and have a lot more information after the lumpectomy, I'm fairly convinced that I'll have a normal(ish) life after treatment. Life has no guarantees but I'm cool with my odds (being a scientist really helps here).

The thing is, even being really optimistic about the outcome, I still have to live through the challenges of treatment. Right now I’m a third of the way through a 12-week course of chemotherapy.

I've been lucky that life has remained fairly normal so far. I'm working pretty much full time, keeping up my normal social butterfly schedule, and I’m not experiencing any uncomfortable side effects (yet).

Unless of course if you count the impending hair loss. I'm finding this one difficult to deal with since my hair has long been a symbol of my struggle to fully become who I am.

Right before I started chemo, a friend cut my hair into a pixie style, the shortest it's ever been, so that when it falls out, maybe it would be less traumatic. I've been yanking at my hair since the start of chemo last month trying to see if it's falling out. Finally, last week, strands started coming out every few times I pulled at it.

If I had to estimate, I would say I've lost around 100 hairs so far. It seems silly to be counting. I think I'm doing it to reassure myself that I haven't lost that much. My plan is to let it thin out until it doesn't look good anymore and then buzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

I've been thinking about why it's bothering me so much. There's, of course, just simple vanity and I'm not embarrassed to admit that. It's not about being some self-defined standard of beautiful, but more about not looking normal. Maybe it's more about me looking in the mirror and seeing what looks like a sick person. I think that's what worries me most. Now other people who don't know what's going on will know something is wrong as well. I’m being outed by my own hair.

The one thing cancer hasn't taken away from me, despite some of these petty worries, is my sense of humor and optimism. Turns out there are actually a few things I'm looking forward to once my hair goes: I'm not going to have to shave my legs all summer. As another friend reminded me, getting ready in the morning will be a breeze with hair styling time cut to zero. Also, I'll finally have the courage to try out some really short hair styles once it starts to grow back. 

When I first learned my diagnosis, I worried about how my precious lot of niece and nephews would react as my appearance changed. They do know I have an “owie,” but they’re too young to fully understand everything that’s going on. I didn’t want to scare them when I lost my hair so I decided to make a game of it with them. I told them I’m going to shave my head for fun. And, if it didn't look good, I'd wear some wigs. I even had them try on the wigs. They thought it was hilarious. Phew!   

In all of this, my father, the man who I was once afraid wouldn’t understand my desire to cut my hair, is one of my biggest supporters. He was at my side during my first chemotherapy treatment even though I know it was difficult for him to see his little girl in a hospital bed. It was that day that he noticed my pixie cut and we talked about the fact that I would lose my hair. He reassured me as confidently as he could that it would grow back.

It reminded me of when I was a teen, after that first haircut my sister gave me, which upset my grandmother. It was my dad who came to my defense then, relying on a Punjabi expression that came from the farming community where my family had once lived: “It’s our home grown crop,” he told her. “We can grow it as often and as long as we want. It’ll keep coming.”

Meanwhile, he sees me, the real me, aside from my hair. And I’ll learn to do that too. 

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Solid tumors, such as those of the breast, are the focus of Solid Tumor Translational Research, a network comprised of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, UW Medicine and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. STTR is bridging laboratory sciences and patient care to provide the most precise treatment options for patients with solid tumor cancers.

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