I’d touched curly hair on other people; my boyfriend has a head full of it. But I’d never expected it to grow out of my own head.
If you manage to survive, cancer gives you a lot of reset opportunities. You can reset your health, your friend lists, your daily level of gratitude. When I was diagnosed with early-stage ovarian cancer two and a half years ago I knew a lot of those changes were coming. But what I didn’t know is that one of the most cliched and dreaded changes a cancer patient goes through was going to give me a thrilling, giggly, and decidedly superficial reset: after years of straight brown locks and a pass through Telly Savalas territory, I was about to reset my hair.
I am an actor and writer living in New York City, and at the time of diagnosis I’d been working with my management on busting into film and TV. I’d been studying with top teachers and practicing with a wonderful community of fellow artists for years, but I hadn’t quite broken in with the right casting directors—yet.
My cancer brought an abrupt pause to all that. I had an urgent priority now. I understood that the course of treatment ahead was surgery and then chemotherapy, and that made sense to me. My cancer was caught early, and I had a good attitude about it. I expected the best and got extremely lucky.
But for my hair? Not so much. I was told that the drugs they would be using on me left no option; I would lose every piece of hair on my body. So one day, my boyfriend shaved my head in the middle of our kitchen. And just like that, I was bald.
My strategy for life without hair was simple: I would wig it. One of my good friends bought me a gorgeous wig that matched my long, straight cut. I also bought a halo-style wig through Chemo Diva, which uses your own shorn hair to create a piece that you can wear under hats. It was winter, and I was able to pop on a beanie, go through treatment, and still post plenty of social media pictures to my Facebook friends and acquaintances who didn’t know what was going on. I still looked like myself and I still looked like my headshot.
That was very important to me, because when I say I accepted the need to put everything on hold, I need to admit that I still fervently wanted to audition, and work, as if nothing was wrong. An actor’s life is auditioning, and being a working actor is a strong part of my identity. So even through cancer treatment, I produced and performed, wigged, in a short film. I went to classes. I even penciled in eyebrows and wore my best long wig to an audition the day after my very last chemo session. Note to casting director Bob Cline: I don’t blame you for not hiring me for that regional theater production of the musical Cowgirls—it’s tough to yodel well when you’re waiting for your on-body injector robot to jab you with a shot of medication in the middle of a G chord.
Once chemo was over (THANK YOU Dr. Cohen and the tireless and friendly staff of St. Luke’s Roosevelt), I still had to wait for my hair to grow. I wouldn’t go wigless until the hair was long enough to color. One of the surprises of losing your hair is learning how many gray patches you’ve been filling in with root touch-up for years. My hair grew in gray leopard-like patches, until one day, it was long enough to dye again. I debuted what looked like a devil-may-care, super chic buzz cut and played it off as if I was bold enough to make that change without cancer to scare me into it.
And then: CURLS. It took a few months more of hair growth, but it wasn’t long before I realized that the hair coming out of my head was unlike anything I’ve felt up there before. It was curly, for the first time in my life. Me, the girl who had a curling iron affixed to my asymetrical bangs throughout most of high school just to coax them into the slightest wave. I needed a straightening iron now; my short hair grew in first like a poodle, then a perm, and now has relaxed into easy waves that add body to my chin length cut that I couldn’t have dreamed up. I love the way highlights play up the texture now. I love the body. For whatever reason, whether it’s because I appreciate having any hair at all, or because I’m getting a hair do-over at the age of 40-(muffled)— I LOVE MY HAIR.
And guess what? So does the industry. I booked my first television roles once I took new headshots, with my curly hair and give-no-f***s attitude, and started auditioning again in earnest. My shorter, more unexpected hair finally matched my energy and character. And it’s been fun on set, too. Hair and makeup had a ball with me on the 1980s Amazon series Red Oaks. They can’t tease long straight hair up to heaven like they can a shorter cut. And when I booked a Law and Order: SVU, the hair goddess there looked at my air-dried, no-makeup self and said, “Perfect. That’s just what we wanted.”
For some reason, cancer knew what I didn’t. My straight, long, just-like-everyone-else hair wasn’t showing on the outside what I know on the inside; that I’ve been through something not everyone has gone through. I’ve looked at life from many sides. My life has given me curveballs, not straight lines. And lately, my life has given me curls.
I’ve since found out that cancer treatment is not the only thing that causes changes to the texture of women’s hair. Curly hair is recessive, but can be just under the surface for many women. Hormonal changes, pregnancies and other causes can bring it out. If it happens to you, I hope you can look at it as a reset and a gift. We, none of us, are meant to stay the same as our 14-year-old selves. With any luck, we’re going to change. And what a joy it is to embrace it.
Please tune in to Law and Order: SVU on January 10th to see the debut of Joanna’s curls.