The Vanity Thing. Staying Sane and Well in the Face of Real Trouble.

This is the third in a series of posts about my own experience with cancer, chemo, radiation, and various alternative therapies. It is the story of a year that I will never forget. This picture was taken shortly after I finished all radiation. We had gone out to brunch with friends. My hair coming back (notice I already had it colored). My eyebrows and eyelashes also back. Looking happy, feeling good, loving life. If you know anyone who could benefit from these posts, please share.)

I have always had a pretty healthy dose of vanity. I’ve never been a beauty queen, but always felt like I looked pretty good, all things considered. When the health crisis hit, I just felt numb. During this time I could barely function, much less put on my contact lenses and makeup. My skin and hair seemed lifeless to me.

I think the hardest part of the whole experience for me was knowing something was wrong, but not knowing what. Then when I realized, after the ultrasounds and the blood work and the scan and the very serious reaction of the gynecologist, that what was wrong was going to require major surgery, I felt paralyzed. How I looked was the last thing on my mind. I felt completely detached from myself. The mind/body connection was completely disconnected. I would look in the mirror and fail to recognize my own reflection. I didn’t know the face that was looking back at me.
On my last day in the hospital after the surgery, the doctor came in the room. The vibe was very heavy. He told me that without chemo I had maybe six months to live. Of course I decided to do chemo.
Sure enough, about two weeks after the first chemo, when I combed my hair lots of it stayed in the comb. I knew that would happen, so I wasn’t surprised. I decided to go in the bathroom, pick up the scissors, and chop about half of it off. I now had a sort of nice bob. It was still coming out at a rapid pace, so three days later I walked across the street to a Mexican barber shop and got it cut super short. I was surprised at how much I like that look. A few days after that, when I realized that I was shedding like a cat, I had Fred take his clippers and just go for it. For me, taking it off in stages was easier. It wasn’t quite as traumatic as I would have thought, and I already had gotten a wig. If you have to get a wig, it is to your advantage to have a friend who does drag. My dearest friend, Andrew, had gotten one shipped to me. If you are getting a wig, get a good one, and definitely get a lace front wig, because it is a much more natural look.Mine was very much like my own hair, shoulder-length and blonde. I would also advise going for short hair in a wig, especially if you are going to wear it in the summer. I did not like wearing the wig. I ended up having it cut, so that it wasn’t touching my neck. I also didn’t like doing the scarf wrap thing because I felt like I was wearing a sign that said, “I have cancer and all my hair fell out.” I got very paranoid when I did the scarf thing because I felt like people were giving me weird looks. (They probably were, actually.) I was more socially comfortable in the wig, and I didn’t like going around the house without something on my head. I didn’t like for Fred to see me bald. I had a little crocheted cap I wore around the house.
A few weeks after the hair fell out, I realized my eyebrows and eyelashes were going, too. I think that bothered me more than the hair. By this time, I had gotten back into wearing makeup, and was very thankful that I’m pretty good with it because my eyebrows were completely drawn on. I compensated for the lashes with eyeliner. If you are in this situation and you are not good with makeup, I strongly suggest that you go to the nearest MAC store and get a lesson or two. Makeup really can help. I had gone into “If it feels good, do it” mode. Makeup definitely felt better than no makeup.
By the time I had the chemo, I felt much better than I had felt before I knew what was going on. Somehow, by a true miracle, I knew I was not going to die from this. I definitely knew it was going to be a challenging time, but I knew it was not going to be the end of my story. I think that God…and you can substitute the word Universe here, Divine Energy, whatever….does speak to us, and I was very open to listen. I found the strength to get through it, and the guidance to know how to plan this journey I never expected to take.
I lost a lot of weight as the spring turned to summer, and summer turned to fall. One day I got out of the bathtub and wrapped a large white towel around myself. I put on my round tortoiseshell glasses and saw my bald self in the big bathroom mirror. The thought hit me that if I had brown skin I would look very much like Gandhi. I was able to find that thought very funny. I’ve always had a quirky sense of humor, and it helped me get through this year. I could probably do some serious standup comedy about this whole thing.
I have learned to love my skinny body, maybe more than I ever have. I have been working out again, now that the last of the radiation is done. My main motive for working out is to be strong. A nice side effect is that I am getting my muscle tone back, and because I don’t have a lot of fat, I can see my arms starting to take shape. I am feeling like my mind and body are a team again, and I really enjoy my time of going for walks, exercising, or spontaneously breaking into a silly little dance. I can make it up a hill again without having to stop. My hair is back, and I am going to keep it short. I have already had it colored (not quite there yet, but I think it needs to be brighter than any color found in nature) because I decided that after all this, I really am not ready for grey hair. I have a lot more wrinkles than I did a year ago, and I haven’t had my Botox redone. The jury is out on that one. I may have passed the point where Botox would help. Sometimes I look in the mirror and kind of like the wrinkles. I always thought that cliche about “I’ve earned these wrinkles” was a bit lame, but actually I have earned them. It’s a new face, that’s for sure. When I see it in the mirror now I know it’s me. A new me, but a good one. I’m so glad to be alive. Being happy is a great beauty treatment.
I feel like a new creature. It is fun to decide, especially at age 73, what my new look will evolve into. (Stay tuned. Work in progress. Red lipstick will definitely be involved). If you are about to go through a similar experience, of course you are not looking forward to these challenges. But the good news is, my hair is back, my eyebrows are back, and my eyelashes are better than ever. (I was pleased to find Latisse at a nearby drug store.) I have gained about 4 pounds since the radiation stopped. I look healthy now, in a Skinny Bitch sort of way.
I still love accessories, makeup, and manicures. Fashion is fun, and will always be a form of self-expression. Vanity is not a bad thing. It is good to try to look your best. It’s just that my thoughts about what defines me have radically changed. The main thing I have learned that the way we look is not the thing that makes people love us. People love us because of how we make them feel.

You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down

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I was intrigued when I received a request from Dee Dee Renner to do her portrait. Dee Dee is a transgender performer at Play Night Club who has recently been recovering from a diagnosis of leukemia, and the chemo that followed. Earlier this summer she started to feel more and more exhausted, and when she went in to find out why, she received the bad news. She has spent most of her time since then going through what has had to be the most intense experience of her life.
Her support system has been amazing. Her mom, Joy, has been here with her the whole time. Her dad has spent a great deal of time in Nashville with her as well. Her employers and co-workers at Play have rallied to encourage
her, and there has been a page on Facebook, Prayers for Dee Dee, to keep her friends and fans up to date on her progress. On July 15, a benefit was held for her at Play, and she made a special Skype appearance. The exciting news now is that she will be at Play for her first live performance since before her diagnosis on September 6.
I have had the opportunity to photograph several people in the drag and transgender community, and I was honored that I was the person Dee Dee chose to record this time of her life. She wanted a really artistic portrait, not a promo head shot, to show that she was still herself, even though her hair was missing and the trials of her battle were showing on her face. I knew what she had in mind, and our photo shoot was, by its nature, very intimate. At the end, I was satisfied I had captured what we had in mind.
I believe that Dee Dee is on her way to a complete recovery, and I was inspired by her positive energy and strong attitude. I am sharing this photo as a tribute to her will to survive, and because it shows that even in the hardest of times, we can rise above the trouble and see the light ahead.

Dee Dee and Joy

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