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The outward sign of cancer

My friend Chris, a woman I have known since we were both girls, was diagnosed with breast cancer in October, and very soon had a double mastectomy and now, she is undergoing rather rigorous chemotherapy.

Her beautiful, thick hair started falling out in clumps on Christmas Day, and the day after Christmas, we went together to her beloved stylist Sherrie to get a buzz cut. It was a quiet day in the salon, and I took cell phone photos of the process, as Chris requested.

The salon became sacred space during the 20 minutes it took to cut and then shave Chris' head, and in that sacred time, as Chris' hair fell to the floor, I saw many of her family members emerge from her face. I saw her handsome older brothers, Dan and Dick, her son Peter, and also her mother Mildred. At some point, Sherrie discovered the cowlicks on the top of Chris' head, which we remembered from her grade-school photos, and which Chris used to take a scissors to as a child to rid her head of them.

We took note of her aristocratic, strong face. Her eyes popped out, clear and firm. Chris' new look emerged. She has a bagful of warm hats, but on this day she kept her head open to the elements. Afterward, we did not cry, as we expected, but we felt almost giddy, and we texted dozens of family members and friends to say: “Look, this is the new Chris.”

The texts came back with kudos. Beautiful eyes. Good scalp! Great nose. And at the end of the day, both of us exhausted, the day's events catching up, Chris expressed relief that her hair was no longer coming out in clumps, a grief in every handful. But instead, she now has an outward sign of what is happening to her.

She is undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Her world, her family's world, the world of her friends, is changing with her. It's a huge change. No matter how fluent we get as a culture on the nature of cancer, no matter how hopeful we are about advance treatments and better survival rates, in the middle of chemotherapy, in the darkest days of December, your hair falling out on Christmas Day, you need an outward sign of the hugeness. Chris has it now. I was honored to bear witness.

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Writer Catherine Johnston of Olympia, Wash., addresses issues facing aging baby boomers and seniors as well as issues of serious illness, death and dying, grief and loss.

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