Hiding My Cancer Under the Hijab


The October breeze felt exhilarating on my scalp as a hairdresser shaved my head. With mixed feelings, I watched my wild, frizzy brown locks fall away and leave behind a clean, neat half-inch buzz.

I had often joked about shaving my head to friends. “Wouldn’t it be nice not to have to fuss with it anymore?” Not that there was much fuss involved. As a Muslim woman who always kept her head covered in public, I was pretty low-maintenance about my hair. Most mornings I barely ran a comb through it before putting it up in a tight bun and covering it with a head scarf or hijab.

The decision to go bald was made for me right before my 36th birthday. I had breast cancer. Stage three, highly undifferentiated — meaning aggressive. After consulting with a flurry of doctors, I started chemotherapy. Within a few weeks my hair started falling out in large, distressing clumps in the shower.

Summoning some courage, I decided to shave it. But as my two young daughters watched, I impulsively told them I was just getting a haircut, and that it would grow back.

My instinct to shield my children from my illness was not the recommended approach. As a pediatrician I knew this. I was supposed to read them age-appropriate books on breast cancer with illustrations showing a mom without hair and a boo-boo on her breast.

But my older daughter, Amira, who was 4, remembered clearly the last person who was sick and in the hospital. When my mother — her grandmother — was dying of breast cancer two years earlier, I had explained everything matter-of-factly, just as the experts recommended. With my own illness, I held back.

So when I left for my chemotherapy appointments, I grabbed my large black tote and pretended I was headed to work. From what I could tell, my daughters bought it. I felt foolish lying but found that I would do anything to normalize the next few months. And speaking about my illness would only open the way to a question I couldn’t answer: Would I die and leave them like Grandma?

Winter came and went as my chemotherapy regimen progressed. I hibernated indoors under plush blankets while the medicine did its job. The pixie cut that made me look cute and tough at the same time slowly fell away until I was mostly bald.

Although it isn’t necessary to wear hijab in front of family members, I started to hide my bald head at home, especially in front of my older daughter. I caught her staring at me quizzically more than once until finally one day while watching cartoons together she peeked under my hijab.

“Mama, your hair is very short now,” she reported accusingly. “You said it would grow.” I knew she would remember my words exactly and chided myself for misleading her.

When my younger brother and sister came to visit, I wrapped my hijab extra tight — afraid any glimpse of my bare head would trigger painful flashbacks.

I became self-conscious about my looks. I lightly colored in my eyebrows and wore eyeliner to distract from my missing lashes. At night I wore a soft cap instead of sleeping bald. My husband responded to my melancholy by gently saying, “It’s just hair. And honestly, your hair is the least of our worries right now.” I bristled at his rational outlook.

The days I felt well enough to leave the house, I blasted the radio while driving my daughter to school. I lingered in the aisles at Trader Joe’s.

Wearing hijab allowed me a thrilling degree of privacy that not all cancer patients enjoy. I cheerfully chatted with fellow moms at school drop off. No explanations needed. No exhausting questions about my illness.

I had never really noticed my hair before. Now it became a precious relic of the old me. The person in the mirror was a stranger. Her face puffy from medications, her eyes hollowed and diminished from lack of brows and lashes. Her worry lines more pronounced. But she was also hauntingly familiar: I looked like a younger version of my mother in the last few months of her life. This terrified me and made me miss her all at once.

My last few doses of chemotherapy were fraught with complications. I was rushed to the hospital twice with fevers. Though I should have been in the homestretch, instead I felt as if I were climbing a mountain and running out of oxygen.

On my second night in the hospital, my younger sister came to visit. She entered frazzled and sat on my bed without taking off her jacket.

“You should have told me sooner you were in the hospital,” she admonished. “Please don’t hide things from me. You shouldn’t have to be brave for us. I can take it.”

“I know that,” I said slowly. “I just didn’t want to upset you, because that would upset me.” She looked on, clearly upset.

Toward the end of our mother’s life, my sister had been the one to stay with her in the hospital, dutiful and patient during the very worst. Our mother’s death devastated her, and I dreaded telling her about the uncertain details of my illness.

I knew that for my sister, seeing me bald and fragile in the same hospital where our mother had died would hold an element of déjà vu. But my medications had put me into early menopause. And the intense hot flashes felt like the push I needed to rip off the symbolic Band-Aid that covered my head.

“Is it O.K. if I take off my hijab?” I asked, my face red and visibly perspiring.

“Umm,” she hesitated. “Yeah, of course.”

I took a deep breath and removed my hijab, using it to fan myself.

“Oh!” she exclaimed, visibly relieved. “You look so cute!” I laughed and posed, feeling lighter than I had in months. With my scalp well-ventilated and free, the words tumbled out like air from a balloon. I told her about my complicated hospital stay. Even after a long work-up, the doctors weren’t sure why I was having fevers. I let the uncertainty hang suspended in the air. I didn’t rush to fill it with vaguely positive words. To my surprise, sharing my grief lightened the burden instead of intensifying the pain.

Once I was discharged from the hospital, I decided to stop wearing hijab in front of my family. Amazingly, my daughters didn’t seem to notice except to gleefully point out, “Mama, your hair is growing back a little!” An indication that I was not a liar after all.

By late February, my treatments ended and a soft layer of fuzz had grown on my head. I no longer looked away from my reflection when passing the mirror. I stared down this stranger with steely determination. And I started to see myself again.

But it was a different version of myself — someone bruised and brave and beautiful. Someone who could face the painful uncertainty of her illness and did not need to hide. Someone I liked and was getting to know.

Saema Khandakar is a pediatrician in New York.

Source : Nytimes