Sunday, February 19, 2017

My alopecia journey: a side effect to life.

I've been thinking a lot lately about my hair--or hair loss, as nature would have it--and what a peculiar few years it has been since this weird side effect of life started.

I call it a side effect of life, because my hair loss didn't come as a side effect to an illness, or to a medication I was on, or even to the weight loss I experienced after WLS a few years ago--though that was what we thought was the initial cause. After three years of losing hair, growing it back, and then losing it again...I finally looked back, and lo and behold, it appears to have been a side effect to life in general.

Want to know the real clincher here? The salt in the paper cut? The turd on the already annoying Sundae life decided to serve up cold? When I was younger, I actually joked about how much I wished my hair would fall out, so that I could fill my closet with wigs. I'd been born with thin, wispy "Muppet Hair" that grew in thin and transparent. I didn't have a full head of hair until I was three years old, and even then it was the hair of an eighteen month old. When I was a teenager, I couldn't grow it past my shoulders without it becoming a matted, damaged mess, and I abused it with color, perms (what? It was the 80's, don't judge me,) back combing, heat styling, and generally doing whatever I could to manipulate it into a style that looked decent. No small feat, considering the fact that it always resembled: Muppet Hair.

Mnah mnah.

Yeah. That's me.

When I would sit and talk with friends as a young adult, I would say that my dream scenario would be to have a closet lined with wigs of all styles and colors, that I could choose from, and become and new woman every single day. I remember saying--jokingly, of course--that I wouldn't be sad at all if my hair fell out, because then I would have the excuse I needed to become a legit wig wearer. (This was when I was young and stupid enough not to realize that the only reason a woman needs to wear a wig is that she wants to, and that there didn't need to be a "legit" reason--but again, I was young, and foolish....)


Yup. I actually self-fulfilled my own prophecy. I'm about 90% sure that God himself heard me running my mouth, and said, "Be careful what you wish for." (I think He says that a lot with me. I remember making jokes when the lovely Farrah Fawcett died of rectal cancer, only to have my recent "butt tumor" experience, <click here to read about that> which was a big, bold wake up call from The Big Guy that I couldn't ignore!)

ZAP. Much like he did when I was a tween and prayed for big boobs. ZAP. Backaches for life. Or when I was a teenager, and I prayed for a whirlwind romance filled with excitement and mystery. ZAP. First marriage from hell. Or when I openly wished we could move far, far away from Washington State, and all of the family drama we experienced there. ZAP. Now you live in South-freaking-Korea!

This is my youngest son outside a Korean temple. Isn't he cute?

In other words: be careful what you ask God for. Not that I was "asking" God to make me bald. I wasn't. I was doing what's known as: running ones mouth. But yeesh, telling people that you wish you could have a closet filled with wigs was a bold statement, and apparently The Big Guy overheard me making it more than a few times.

ZAP. Alopecia.

Self-fulfilled prophecy.

But, I my alopecia journey didn't come after an illness. Though a lot of people with hair loss are mistaken for cancer patients, most of us are perfectly healthy, happy individuals, who happen to lose our hair. Sometimes we lose ALL our hair, other times we lose some of our hair, sometimes we even lose our brows and eyelashes. Sometimes the lucky ones will lose leg and other body hair, as well. Though I shouldn't joke about them being "lucky," should I? With the aforementioned "zap" theory.....

I've just lose spots on my head, some of my eyebrows, and most of my upper lashes. I haven't lost any other body hair, and most of the time my hair grows back in the spots I lose. My upper lashes haven't grown back yet, but I've had regrowth on my eyebrows. I don't take medications or do any treatments for my hair loss. It's hereditary, so I know it's something I'll likely experience off and on forever, and so I've opted not to fight it, since 90% of the treatments offered are unsuccessful and the results are only temporary. I've become cool with the hair loss. I don't like it, but I don't fight it, either. It is what it is.

My loss started after we lost our daughter. We'd been foster parents for a year, had a little girl during that time, attempted to adopt her, only to have her taken away in the eleventh hour, and placed back into the home of some dangerous and irresponsible relatives. We never saw or heard from her again. It was a shattering loss, and we still speak about it in hushed voices, and with reverence. It absolutely wrecked us--all six of us in the family--and in the months after it happened, I noticed my first signs of hair loss. My widows peak was growing further and further back, and my part was widening. You could see my scalp through my hair in places.

Three and a half years since I've seen this face.

Then I had WLS, and lost 100 pounds. The process of getting approved for weight loss surgery is not easy, and if I'm being honest, it darn near drove me insane. I had to lose 10% of my body weight, which doesn't sound like much (to some,) but when my doctor looked at obese me and said, "You need to drop 25 pounds," it was like telling me to spin straw into gold. So what did I do? I said goodbye to cheeseburgers and got my big butt to work. It took me 6 months, but I did it, I got down 25 pounds. Then things got worse...I had to go on a liquid diet for 2 and a half weeks prior to surgery.  I can honestly say that the liquid diet almost killed me. My teeth were gross from a lack of chewing, my gag reflux kicked into high gear because I was so grossly sick of liquid nutrition. It was foul...and sure enough, my hair thinned even more during this time. Of course it did. Because when it rains it pours.

Once I had my surgery (and by the grace of God, survived another two weeks of post surgery liquid diet) I started to notice that my loss had morphed from a deepening widows peak to a full on bald spot on the left front side of my head. Shortly after that, I discovered another round bald patch on the back upper right side of my head. They started out small. Maybe the size of a dime. But they grew quicker than I was prepared for. I started dreading washing my hair, because I would up with handfuls of my precious Muppet Hair in my hands and in the drain. This went on for a couple months, until I couldn't hide the spots anymore, and I bought my first wig.

There's something about being forced to wear a wig, as opposed to wearing one because you want to. It takes all the fun out of it. You're suddenly self conscious in ways you never expected. Everywhere you go, you're convinced that everyone knows you're wearing a wig. You feel itchy and hot and aggravated. Trying to bio hide hair underneath a wig is tricky and stressful, so I opted to shave my head, which created an emotional response I wasn't prepared for. Suddenly I felt like less of a woman. Like the fact that I had breasts and a vagina and a uterus didn't count for anything, because my crown of glory was gone. I felt less feminine, and unattractive. I pushed away my husband and wouldn't--still don't--let him see my head without a hat or scarf.

Some women are bolder than I am. They flaunt their bare heads proudly. I don't do that. I'm not sure I ever will. And I've been told many times by many friends--including my own husband--that it's "okay" to do do. But I don't. I don't want to.  It's my hang up. I'll either get over it or I won't, but I am in awe of the women who strut their stuff with their bald heads exposed, loud and proud. Those women rock. I'm just not "there."

With time--about 8 months, to be exact--my bald patches eventually filled in, and I wore my natural hair again. I fashioned it into a very, very short pixie cut, and went back to coloring it, playing with it, wearing headbands and barrettes. My stylist had fun making it blonde for me, which, in retrospect, probably wasn't smart, as it fried what hair I had, but hey, hindsight is 20/20, eh? I felt like myself again, and assumed that the loss had been simply due to the stress of a failed adoption, and a massive weight loss, but that it was over now. My hair would continue to grow, and all would be well.

Well.....all was not well.

We moved. Not just across town, or across the state, or even across the country. We moved to a different country. My husband took a job with Samsung, and we moved to South Korea...a move that caused so much stress, I'm still catching my breath. In the space of two months, we broke the news to our family and friends, we cleaned out and sold our house--which we'd lived in for 13 years, we packed up all of our belongings, and we moved a family with four children to a country where we didn't speak the language and didn't know anyone.

So yeah....stress. It also seemed to contribute to my hair loss, because...unbeknownst to me, within the first few weeks of living abroad, my hair had started to thin again. In all of our pictures from our first months here in Korea, you can see that my widow's peak had started to recede. You can see my scalp through many of the pictures during those first few weeks here in Korea. I'm shocked and embarrassed that I missed the clues, and was walking around like that. But it wasn't until I came back to America for my first summer home that I discovered another round patch on the top of my head. And then another.

It was happening again. Friggin' great. Side effect to life.

I went back to wigs. I didn't mind, other than my children saying that they hate it when I switch between colors and styles all the time. They wanted me to pick a color and style and stick with it, which I tried to do, but after about 9 months, I had to go back to being creative and having fun with my hair. I'd always had fun with my hair when it was coming from my own follicles, why not have fun with faux hair, eh? Besides, when life gives you lemons (i.e. female hair loss before the age of forty) then make lemonade--have some fun. Find joy in the big fat bummer life decided to serve to me.

I researched treatments. Shampoos, oils, herbal regimens, hair replacement surgery, hair restoration processes, acupuncture, steroids, injections, etc etc etc....and chose not to do any of them. After much prayer and introspection, I decided that doing treatments that are only (at best) 30% effective, and usually not at all permanent, and hurt like a son of a gun, that I would just accept my lot in life. Honestly, when the rest of my health is A-OK, and my biggest complaint is having really crappy hair, then I am doing alright. Besides, I've come to enjoy the ability to be a brunette at breakfast, a redhead for lunch, and a blond by dinnertime. This cannot be achieved with my Muppet hair.

It wasn't easy. Losing my hair was a punch to the gut. In a world that accentuates a woman's beauty above her mind, her words, and her actions, it can strip a girl of her femininity when she finds herself without her "crowning glory." Despite having female parts, it felt like I was less of a woman not having hair. This was a struggle I had to grapple with for a while before I could come out the other side of it a better person. It wasn't easy. Talk about an emotional roller coaster. But I did come through it, stronger and more confident than ever. Sure, I still struggle with self esteem, but I'm a heck of a lot better off than I was two or three years ago, that's for sure...

That said, I'll be danged if I'm ever going to tempt God to give me a lesson like this again. Don't like my legs? Shhhhh, don't say a word. ZAP. I've now got elephantiasis of the calf to teach me a lesson. Don't like my nose? ZAP, the next morning I'll wake up with Carl Maudlin's nose...

i've learned my lesson. I swear I have. Besides, being a bald woman isn't the worst thing I could go through. Last month, I had a cancer scare and it put some things into perspective. I've got healthy, awesome kids. I've got a husband who still seems to love me and find me irresistible, despite my lack of hair and fondness for long, sexless flannel nightgowns. I've got a career I love, and readers who follow and support me, no matter what I write. Who the heck cares about freaking hair?

Well, I do. A little. But not as much as I used to. I'm learning to love me, AND this peculiar, inexplicable side effect of life God's blessed me with.


Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The story of the colon that tried to kill me.

If you are easily grossed out, or like to make fun of people who grow things in their butt, please skip this blog post. It's a doozy.

Most of you know that I got violently ill with a bacterial infection over our Christmas holiday in Boracay, Philippines, and that I struggled for about a month to get over it. During this time I missed most of a trip to Boracay, had to cancel a trip to Saipan, had about a dozen and a half I.V.'s, and stayed in the hospital twice. Ick. What a crappy (and expensive) winter. What you might not know is that my husband and I went to bed last night thanking God for that disgusting infection, because it kinda saved my life.

Here's where this tangent becomes a doozy. Prior to getting sick in Boracay, last summer I'd had the onset of some small symptoms of a gross and embarrassing nature. As a mother of four children born from vaginal births, I assumed I was having hemorrhoid issues, which has been commonplace for me over the years, so I'd made the decision not to pursue it with a doctor until I was back living in the USA--eighteen months from now. I know, I know. Who ignores bleeding from *there*? Well, you'd be surprised. And I'm almost certain you yourself have ignored symptoms in the past out of embarrassment or laziness. So yeah. That's what I did.

Fast forward to after we came home from doctor friend tried diligently to help me recover from that nasty infection, but once it got to my intestines, it stalled. The bleeding increased to alarming proportions, and I (finally) confessed to Kyung Shin what was happening and how alarmed Monte and I were getting. She sent me to the hospital for treatment and tests, where I was given a CT scan. During this scan, they noticed polyps, and upon my release, I was told to come back in a week for a follow up appointment to schedule a colonoscopy if my infection (and diarrhea of Dumb & Dumber proportions) had cleared up enough to, erm, go in.

This is actually about 1/10 of what I did about 15 times daily. Nope. Not kidding.

The hubby and went to my follow up feeling pretty chipper. I was feeling better, the bathroom issues were clearing up, I no longer laid on the floor, curled in a ball, crying all the time. We walked into the gastroenterologist' office laughing and joking, talking about stopping for burgers on the way home, since we didn't have the kids with us. But when the doctor started talking, crap got serious, real fast. In his broken English he explained the severity of the situation. Key words stuck out to me: tumor, large, bad, immediate, rectum, cancer, dangerous. The room spun, and I turned to my husband, cracking up, crying, and said, "I have a tumor in my *** hole. I'm going to go out Farrah Fawcett style." The doctor and Monte exchanged a look that clearly said she's losing it, and the doctor said "I'm very sorry." Long and short of it: I had a large tumor on the lower part of my intestine, upper part of my rectum and it had to come out stat.

We had to schedule an immediate tumor removal. The doctor wanted to do it the following Tuesday (it was Friday,) which meant I'd have to check into the hospital the coming Monday. He would, erm, go in colonoscopy style to try to remove it, but if it was presenting itself as flatter and deeper, rather than bulbous and off of the surface (sort of like a pimple) then a surgeon would be needed to remove it, and I would have to stay in the hospital for about 7 days. The doctor said that once the tumor was out, he would be able to look at it and have an idea of whether or not it was malignant, but that it would be biopsied to make sure. After researching colon tumors at home, we learned that the tumors that present themselves as flatter are usually malignant and invasive. The ones that are up above the surface are sometimes malignant, but sometimes not, but that the malignant ones usually had a very distinctive look. My odds were split down the middle. My age and overall health worked in my favor, but the size of the tumor, the bleeding, and my family's history with cancer didn't. It was a total crap shoot. (pun intended.)

We skipped the burgers on the way home. I texted a few close friends and my brother. Monte and I discussed things we've never, ever had to discuss before. If I was sick, where would we fight the cancer? In South Korea, or at home in America? If we went back to America, how could we afford to fight cancer? Would Obama care still exist? How would I fight cancer in Korea when I couldn't even get through recharging our kid's cell phones without getting exasperated? What if. I died? How would the kids get through life without a mom? How would my husband parent the kids alone? I would miss graduations, missions, college, weddings, grandchildren...just the thought of missing out on grandchildren buckled my knees. I kept telling my husband, "I don't want to die. I'm not done yet!"

Because my husband is out of days off, I had a good friend take me to the hospital that Monday (Hubby joined me that night), and by Tuesday I was a complete ball of nerves. I'd planned out a complete meal and before/after school schedule for my husband and the kids; I'd asked all of my prayer warriors in the USA to throw a good word in with the Big Guy for me; and I'd spent a lengthy amount of time praying for myself. I vowed that if He helped me to survive this, I would work harder at being a good wife, a good mother, and a good disciple. I admitted my flaws and mistakes and promised God to work harder on them, regardless of what He made the outcome of my surgery be. It was the lowest of the low for me--being so in need of a miracle, but feeling so unworthy of one. There's something about the humility of having a potentially cancerous tumor growing in my BUTT that finally humbled me enough to break me--so that He could put me back together.

I wish it were that simple. 

When they wheeled me in for the procedure, I started to cry. My doctor--who is agonizingly blunt and honest--asked me if I was alright. I replied with, "I'm just really scared." His response? "I am, too." Me: "THAT DOESN'T HELP AT ALL." Then he asked me to close my eyes, because they were going to put the sleepy time meds into my I.V., but I was too nervous to obey him. All I could think about was: what if the tumor is deep, and I bleed out? What if it's malignant and its aggressive and it's already in my lungs or liver or something like that? (I'd been wheezing because of the poor air quality here in Korea, which suddenly convinced me that it'd already metastasized in my lungs--don't hate. I come from a long line of worriers.) What if when I woke up again, my family's entire world was off kilter, because I had the big C? For some reason (I'm assuming it's acute hysteria) I prayed out loud. I asked God one more time to "please save me." And I asked my dad, who I'd decided was standing there in ghost form, likely wishing I'd calm down, to "stay with me." The next thing I remember is waking up.

My doctor.

During the time I was unconscious, my doctor sent for my husband twice. The first time was to show him (while I was unconscious with a camera up my butt--thanks, doc! Privacy Acts can kiss Korea's butt--pun intended.) that the tumor was presenting itself in the worst possible way. It was flat, only slightly domed, and appeared deep--which was usually the invasive malignant tumors (see the above tumor diagram.) The doctor told him that he "didn't know if he could remove it" and that it was "bad." My husband said the doc taken a deep breath, and said a very hesitant "I'll try." before sending him back to the waiting room, where he'd sat, fretting that he'd just given the doctor permission to do something he wouldn't succeed at, and that I was going to bleed too much, and still have to see the surgeon. This was all in addition to the knowledge that the tumor was presenting itself in the worst possible way, and had a high probability of malignancy.

A short while later, the doctor called for my husband again. Expecting the worst, he'd gone back into the room, where the doctor had held up a specimen jar proudly. He'd gotten it out, and it was, as my husband so eloquently put it, big and gross. The doc explained to him that when he'd injected the area, it'd punctured the tissue, and that the tumor had just risen right before his eyes, making it simple for him to just hook it around its neck and snag it out. The doctor, who was feeling quite proud of himself at that point, said that it "looked good," but we'd send it for biopsy to know for sure.

This is what I felt like after the tumor removal was over.

Now....I am well aware the there is probably a medical explanation for what happened during my procedure. That is not lost on me. You can choose to look at with scientific goggles or spiritual goggles, and we've chosen spiritual goggles. And here's why: because despite being told, repeatedly, that the tumor was large and presenting itself poorly, the minute the doctor slit that tissues, my tumor rose up and completely changed shape before his eyes. This miracle came after countless local friends stepped out of their comfort zones to help and assist my family; dozens of friends and family prayed earnestly for my health; my best friends' family fasted for me; I asked my deceased dad to stay with me; and I begged my Father in Heaven to save me. I asked for a miracle--and He gave it, in the form of a tumor that changed its shape/presentation right in front of my doctors eyes. This miracle happened to me, and I believe it.

I am a habitual doubter. I hope to change that.

The wait for our next appointment was a week and a half, and despite having high hopes, my husband and I walked on eggshells. Every conversation we had about the likelihood of the tumor being benign was overshadowed by two things: the fact that I'd heard my own parents having the exact same reassuring conversations when my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. And second, the fact that in my forty years on earth, I've dodged about a hundred and twelve bullets, and at some point, one of those bullets is bound to hit me. It felt foolish to celebrate before we knew with a surety that I'd somehow dodged that most recent bullet.

We got my biopsy results yesterday, and the first words my doctor said were: "congratulations, you can go back to your life now." Oh what joy this sentence gives. My tumor was benign, and I wasn't going to die anytime soon. Hubby and I breathed a guttural sigh of relief for the first time in weeks, and we left with a bounce in our steps. For the life of me, I don't know why God chose to bless me with a miracle, and so many go without. I don't understand why I was saved (for now,) but so many haven't been. I can't fathom why my prayers were answered, but so many aren't. The lack of fairness in this situation is not lost on me. All that I'm meant to understand is that my time here isn't over, and that this was a wake up call for me to live the way I promised God I would, eat foods that will keep my body healthy and strong, and start taking care of soul properly. To ignore that clear point to all of this pain, and fear, and worry, would be inexplicably foolish. My Father in Heaven loves me, and for some unfathomable reason, He chose to save me, and I intend to make it worth His while.

Me, after getting the good news.

For those of you who are rolling your eyes right now, I invite you to can it. I have a point. I swear I do. The whole point of my post is this: if I'd not gotten sick in Boracay, I never would've gone to the doctor for my, erm, toilet issues. I would have happily ignored it until I got back to America, and probably for a long time after that, as well. According to my doctor, because of the already impressive size of my tumor, there was a high probability that it would've became me cancerous by the time I dealt with it. I was ignoring something that would've eventually killed me.

I beg each of you to do one thing for me: listen to your body. If something weird or gross or painful is happening to you, get it checked out. And no, I don't mean on Web MD. See your doctor. Put your health first. There are people who love you and depend on you. Don't put stupid stubbornness before your role as husband, wife, mom, dad, sister, brother. Take care of yourself because you love them, even if you struggle loving yourself. Do not ignore what your body is trying to tell you...occasionally it's not just indigestion (or hemorrhoids). It might actually be something that can kill you. I'm living proof of that.

If your doctors look like these people, they're probably not real doctors.

Our Father in Heaven is ready and willing to help you. His love never wanes. He is, quite literally, always there, and always listening. You might not get the answer that I got, but He *will* answer you in some form. I'm one of His disciples, and it's my job to share that message with each of you, the folks that mean the most to me.

And so ends my cringe-worthy post. I'm alive. I'm lucky. I'm acutely aware of how much so.

Take care of yourselves. You're loved.