That time I confronted a stranger who assumed I was a man

I’m shaking as I type this. I’m angry. I’m embarrassed. And I’m a little nervous about the confrontation I just had.

Background: My hair is growing back, but it’s in a really awkward stage. It’s no longer “Oh, look how cute! Little hair!” And it’s not long enough to do anything with. It’s just…there. I’ve overcompensated lately by dressing more girly than normal – dresses or skirts, soft colors, scarves, makeup, jewelry – things that scream “GIRL!” Or so I thought.

I was standing in line at the sandwich place in the food court of the Union. It was pretty busy, but I was hungry and sometimes this place has a decent sandwich. I stood there in my jeans (rolled at the ankles to expose cute black flats) and white t-shirt with a ballerina in a mixed-medium lace skirt. I wore red lipstick. I carried a bright pink purse and checked Facebook on my phone covered in a bright pink and gray case. A pink Fitbit on one wrist, and a delicate purple stone and silver ring on the other hand.

Do I look like a fucking man?!

Do I look like a fucking man?!

I placed my order at the counter, and then the student worker called, “Next!”

The older man behind me said, “Did you get this man’s order?” and pointed in my direction. At this point I was looking directly at him.

“You mean HER order?” the student worker corrected.

“Yeah, his order,” the guy said again. Then looked me in the eye and said, “Oh, HER’S…” It was a condescending, sing-songy tone.

He patronizingly patted my left shoulder twice. I looked away.

I was seething. My eyes started to get liquidy (not tears, but I tend to leak from the eyes when very angry). Do I say something? Do I let it go? I played a couple of scenarios in my head, a few things I’d like to say. The kind of things you think about but you know you won’t really say aloud.

I was stuck. This guy was an older white man, dressed in a suit coat and tie. I work at a university, and dress code is usually pretty casual, except for administrators (most of whom are older white men). Do I dare jeopardize myself, and possibly my job, by saying something?

I started to shake.

I grabbed a drink from the cooler and made my way to the cashier. After paying her, I realized the guy was behind me. And I realized that I was really pissed.

“Hey,” I said, looking him right in the eye. “You called me a man back there. Referred to me as a ‘him.’”

“Sorry, I wasn’t looking. Your hair…” he said, his eyes wide.

“Yeah,” I pointed to my head. “This is called breast cancer. Six months of chemo, 17 radiation treatments, and surgery. I’m a women, god-dammit, regardless of what my appearance might suggest.”

“I’m…I’m sorry,” he said again, looking down.

“Just do me a favor. Maybe you should LOOK next time. Really look.”

I turned and walked away, out of the Union, back to my building, into the elevator, and to my office.

I don’t know who that dude was, and know what? I’m not sure I’d change a thing if I DID know who he was.

Now, I’m going to enjoy my lunch before my next class.

Red devil – DONE

I finished my last “red devil” treatment today. It was not without incident.

While having my labs drawn, my port wouldn’t work. Needle in, nothing out. Turns out, the end of the port was clogged. It’s fairly common – platelets clog the end of the port, forming a mesh-like cover and making it difficult (or impossible) for anything to pass. The techs and nurses were able to push saline into the line, but they couldn’t get anything to come to back out.

The solution: a medication that the nurses compared to Drano. It basically “eats” away at whatever is clogging the end of the line. It took an hour, but the medicine worked, and the port works better than ever. It’s so crazy to think a toxic “Drano”-like substance along with the “red devil” were injected into my body today. My blood is a pretty toxic cocktail.

My lab work today revealed that I’m anemic. It explains the fatigue I’ve been experiencing this week (what should have been my “good” week). I’m planning a week of red meat and iron-rich foods in the coming days.

Next week is an off-week. I’ll have labs on Friday and an ultrasound to see how the masses have changed. Honestly, I can’t even feel them anymore. The doc couldn’t even FIND them during the exam today. Then following week starts “normal” chemo.

So after the first phase of chemo:

– I still have hair – well, hair on my head (and brows and lashes are intact). I’ve lost all the hair on my legs, underarms and bikini area. (Better than laser therapy or waxing!) But my head still holds onto the little spiky hairs, except for an area above both ears on the sides (think where infants lose their hair). The kids are convinced that it’s growing out. I’m not sure it’s GROWING, but it’s sure not gone like I was told it would be at this point.

– I’m still having regular periods completely on schedule, which confuses the docs. Apparently, I shouldn’t be menstruating, and menopause should be kicking in. I have hot flashes and night sweats, but really no other menopausal symptoms. I have super hormones!

– My skin is crazy dry. I’m using a ton of lotion, but nothing helps. My skin is also getting SUPER sensitive – like the seams of pajama pants HURT. I remember when I was shopping for scarves and the two women were offering advice. They laughed and said something like, “You’ll become very aware of seams and where they are.” I thought that was kinda crazy, but it’s true, and it’s REALLY uncomfortable.

– The masks offered in doc offices for people who have colds? Yeah, apparently there’s latex in them. I wore one when I came in for fluids last week, and now my face (the part that was under the mask) is covered in a red, flaky rash – the same reaction I get from latex. It’s itchy and somewhat painful, and I just have to wait it out to get better. Fingers crossed that’s soon because it’s my face.

It feels good to be done with this first phase of chemo. I really don’t know what to expect for the next 12 weeks, other than being told it’s “easier.” Whatever that means.

Bald, part two (“The reaction”)

I drove home wearing one of my new wigs. It felt a little unnatural, but not uncomfortable. I kept touching it to check to make sure it didn’t slip. (It didn’t. Darn things are pretty secure.)

Walking into the house, B had lunch on the table for the kids. “I like your hair, mommy,” said Lauren. B’s oldest daughter echoed the sentiment with a comment about how she liked it “with no curls.” Ethan was not as enthused.

“Oh, mommy, take it off!” he shouted.

“Well… You might not like that either,” I said and explained that I had my hair shaved.

“I can’t even look at you!” he said loudly.

The three girls, however, were excited about the wigs. After lunch, I tried on the other wig (aka, “The French Assassin”) to more praise. “You have bangs like me, mommy! We are twins!” said Lauren.

I asked if they wanted to see my head without a wig. “Yeah!”

I removed the wig. “I like it,” said Lauren, then she ran off to play.

B’s youngest daughter, however, was not amused. She started crying and ran to her dad to be picked up. She was afraid of me. She stopped crying when I put on a scarf. (She was better the next day about seeing me without hair.)

I tried on scarves and turbans throughout the day. But I was most comfortable with nothing on my head.

That night, Ethan came into my room before he went to bed. I asked him to sit next to me on my bed. “Hold my hand,” I said. “You need to be able to look at me.”

I explained this was temporary. My hair would grow back. The fact that it was going to fall out meant the chemo was working. I told him he couldn’t NOT look at me between now and summer. Slowly, he turned his head and looked at me. We made a few jokes about it, and he relaxed. He still wouldn’t touch it (unlike Lauren who still wants to rub my stubbly head all the time), but he could look at me.


I called my mom when I was driving to the salon and told her I was probably going to shave my head that morning. I called her again after it was over. I didn’t know until the next day that she was really emotional about my hair. She apparently cried all day about the loss.

When she came over on Sunday, however, she was better. I had a hat on, and I asked if she was ready before I took it off. “OK…” she hesitated.

“Oh my God!” she said. “You look so cute! You look like your dad!”

“Like grandpa, but more femin-in-in-ized,” said Ethan from the other room.

Once she saw me, she was okay, hair or no.

I guess I do look like my dad….

I guess I do look like my dad…  (Although, according to Lauren, I’m “less gray.” Good point, Laurenator.)


I think I handled the hair-thing pretty well. It was fun to touch the stubble left on my head. It was fun trying on the scarves and wigs and turbans I bought a few weeks ago. But after the kids were in bed, and B and I were sitting in the living room having a glass of wine, I started to tear up. I was okay with the cutting of my hair, but tears just wanted to fall. Not crying, just tears leaving my face. I wasn’t sad; I knew I as in control. It was my decision to cut and not wait for it to fall out. I couldn’t even articulate why I was teary. I think the emotions of the day just caught up and exploded (a tear explosion!). I was fine about 10 minutes later.


 On Sunday, Lauren climbed onto my lap and rubbed my head. She leaned down to kiss the top of her head and pulled away, complaining about the stubble against her lips. Then she held my head in her hands and said, “Mommy, I love your body. I love your new hair. It’s fun.”


Bald, part one

Less than 24 hours after hair and makeup pampering for the boudoir photos, I was bald.

The oncologist reiterated on Friday that there was a 95 percent chance my hair would go in a week. A few other breast cancer patients who underwent similar treatment confirmed that it was day 14 when the hair went. My research confirmed no hair two weeks after the first dose of chemo.

I thought I’d hang onto my hair as long as possible, maybe proactively shaving it on about day 12 (given class schedules and other activities, Wednesday afternoon seemed like a good idea).

On Saturday morning, I took a long, hot shower. Washed and conditioned my hair. Ran my fingers through to detangle. I noticed some hair near the drain and moved it with my toes. More hair came up from the drain. Soon there was a pretty decent pile of dark brown curls in the corner of my shower. I got out.

I applied the leave-in conditioner; curl tonic, and styling crème to my hair. I felt the diffuser massage my scalp as I dried my hair upside down. For the first time ever, the diffuser kind of annoyed me. My scalp seemed tender. I finished with anti-frizz gel and hairspray.

I made a decision.

I drove to the salon to pick up my “cranial prosthesis.” Wendy was helping with a wig fitting, so I waited. The salon is nice. Nothing fancy. A small town hair place where older women get their weekly wash and style. Maybe some families have always gone there and continue going there with their kids and grandkids. It’s clean, comfortable. But there’s absolutely nothing fancy about it.

I talked to Carlie, one of the other stylists, who was working on the hair of a girl who looked like she was in high school. Carlie’s young daughter and her friend ran in and out of the room, playing with dolls and talking about shows on Nickelodeon. I played with my new wigs and tried on some hats.

When Wendy was finished, she helped me adjust the wigs to fit my head. “Do you have time today to cut my hair?” I asked her.

She asked if I wanted to go into a private room. I declined. I was sitting in an old hair styling chair. The yellow leather cracked. I just wanted to get it done with.

Wendy put a black cape over my shoulders. She ran her fingers through my curls. “I’m not really sure where to start. Can I cut it first, then shave?”

“You’re the expert,” I said.

Carlie recommended I take photos as it was being done. She handed me my phone from my jacket.

Wendy started cutting from the back. Snip, snip, snip. I could “feel” about three inches fall off. I swear I could hear it hit the ground. She continued, then placed her hand on my shoulder, “Are you okay?”

“Just keep going,” I said, taking photos. I was okay. I was in charge. This was my choice, not the chemo’s.

When my hair was about two inches long all the way around, she stopped to get the clippers. I started laughing to myself. “What if all this is a dream?” I thought. “What if I really don’t have cancer? What if the tests were wrong? Mixed up in the lab? I’m having my freaking head shaved, and maybe this isn’t real.”

The buzz of the clippers brought me back to reality. The blades felt warm, almost hot against my skin. She started in the back and moved to the sides. I realized that she was cutting it super short. I guess I thought it would be more “buzzed” cut than almost to the skin. Not leaving a half or a quarter inch of hair, but just a little but of stubble. But it was too late.

When she got to the top of my head, I asked her to leave a mohawk. “When else am I ever going to have one? I think the kids will laugh,” I thought. She cut and clipped my hair into one, but it looked way too harsh, so I had her cut it off, too. As the last few swipes of the clippers made their way across my head, Carlie stopped cutting the high schooler’s hair. “You look real pretty,” she said, smiling. “Really you do.” Her voice was soft, her eyes kind, and I knew she meant it. I started to cry for the first time through the whole cut. Little tears, but enough I had to stop and wipe my eyes.

I was adjusting to the image before me when the high school girl’s mom came in. She, too, was bald. Not because of cancer, but because she’s just crazy. “Bald is beautiful, baby!” she screamed, removing her pink knitted hat. Then she talked about kicking someone ass because they were taking too long in the tanning bed.

I tried on my wigs without hair underneath and made some adjustments to tightness. “You look real nice,” the crazy bald woman said. “You look pretty with or without that wig. I hope you’re going to be okay.”

Wendy rang up my purchases – two wigs, a wig cap (may or may not be necessary to help with any itchiness of the cranial prosthesis), and a brush (yeah, with curls, I didn’t own a brush that wasn’t full of the kids’ hair).

The salon wasn’t my usual hair place. But I was made to feel comfortable there through the whole process. Wendy and Carlie were very nice. Wendy spent more than 2.5 hours with me over the course of the week – from the fitting to the shaving to wigs 101, and the entire process was free of charge. I felt bad. At this kind of salon, with this kind of clientele, these ladies aren’t making much. I left Wendy a nice tip. She cried and hugged me. I cried and hugged her back. Then I drove home.

Going, going, gone.

Going, going, gone.

And then I posed in lingerie

I was about 20 minutes away before it hit me: soon, I would be standing in my panties in front of a stranger. This is just not something I do

Right after I was diagnosed, I started thinking of ways to commemorate this process, to celebrate what I would go through and where I would end up. Something to look back on later and feel – dare I say – good about myself.

It seemed obvious: boudoir photos.

In my mind, I knew what I wanted. A story – now, chemo, surgery, reconstruction. I wanted it to be pretty. To celebrate me. Photos of me. For me. Through some of the toughest times. I just wanted the story to be a beautiful telling of…me (and the superficial things that make me…me like hair and boobs).

I started researching photographers right away. Some were sketchy (“rent a hotel room and I’ll come take photos”). Some were too focused on sex (whips, chains, handcuffs, lots of nudes). But there was one photographer’s website that spoke to me.

She profiled ladies of various sizes, all beautifully photographed. I loved that she brought in her own hair and makeup person (instead of going to a salon then the studio). I liked that it was an “all ladies” team.

I sent her a message right away, explaining my situation and what I was looking for. I also told her that I was kind of tight on time since I’d be losing my hair soon.

I didn’t hear back right away, and I started to second guess my idea. But then Jenn did email and was very apologetic for the delay. It was Valentine’s season (dammit – didn’t even consider that!), and she was completely booked. We went back and forth on email a few times, and I was resigned to this just not happening.

On Wednesday, she emailed saying she was having lunch with another boudoir photographer in town who would be able to get me in before I lost my hair. She sent me a link to the website. It was fine. It would certainly satisfy my desire to have photos, but the photographer’s style wasn’t as soft as I wanted. I ignored the email.

Yesterday, Jenn emailed again. She had a last minute cancellation and wanted to offer it to me. I jumped at the chance. I had less than 20 hours to get ready.

There wasn’t time to shop (or get waxed or do any real thinking). I grabbed a duffle bag and tossed some lingerie, scarves and jewelry into it. “Just wing it,” I thought.

Then I fell asleep super early last night, and never gave it another thought.

This morning I had an early doc appointment. (More on that later, but woo-doggy, chemo is working! Cell counts are crazy low, but the doc isn’t placing any restrictions on me.) Then I went to my mom’s for breakfast. She wanted to see my lab work and make me eggs and bacon. An hour after breakfast, it was off to the photographer.

The studio was in an old warehouse building, full of various artist studios. Jenn’s studio was on the fourth floor (with no working elevator). Of course I was early. I sat on the cold concrete floor and thought about what was about to happen.

“In an hour, you will be almost naked, in front of a stranger, posing for photos,” I thought. “What the fuck are you thinking?”

I don’t kiss on the first date (or second….). I’m a suburban mom who isn’t overly adventurous or crazy. I have no piercings (outside of my ears) or tattoos. I drive a very neutral colored SUV. I’ve never dyed my hair an unnatural color. Look up conservative in the dictionary, I might be featured. And I’m okay with that.

And I was about to take off my clothes.

I played on Facebook while I waited. Theresa, the hair and makeup artist arrived. We made small talk while waiting for Jenn. Then it was time.

“What did you bring?” Jenn asked as she showed me into a makeshift dressing area behind a silky purple curtain. She and Theresa stood behind me as I opened my bag. Suddenly, I wasn’t very confident with my choices.

“Um…It was so last minute that I just grabbed stuff I had,” I tried to explain. “No time to go shopping or stuff…”

“That’s what usually happens,” said Jenn. “Let’s just see.”

I took out some bras and panties and set them in a pile. A few camisole/teddy kind of things. A corset. Some scarves. A longer gown. A pair of nude heels. Random jewelry, mostly pearls (as if I was trying to hang onto some sort of innocence through this).

Jenn and Theresa rummaged through the piles. A few things were discarded because of lack of support (“We want the girls to look good.”) The longer gown would cover too much. We settled on a black and white camisole, a purple corset, and a turquoise scarf.

Next was hair and makeup. We talked about what I wanted, and settled on a more polished version of me. A little sexy, but not slutty or sex vixen. Theresa cleaned off my makeup and got started. She noted my super dry skin (which will only get worse), and said it looked like it was dehydrated. (OMG, I can’t possibly drink MORE water!) She got to work. So many brushes and colors and…stuff. Now, I enjoy spending time in a Sephora or a good makeup counter, but I had NO idea what most of the stuff in her kit was. I was turned away from the mirror, so I couldn’t see anything. I could only follow commands (look up, look down, lips slack).

Every few minutes Jenn would come into the room and ooh and ahhh. They both went on and on about my eyes and playing up that feature. They both agreed to do minimal stuff to my hair (“just some boost at the roots!”). An hour or so later, and I was turned around to look in the mirror.


It was perfect. Sexy eyes, but very, very natural otherwise. And I couldn’t believe what a difference false eyelashes make. (Note to self: buy false eyelashes because…hotness.)

Jenn wanted to start with the black and white camisole, and she ushered me back to the dressing room to change. I closed the curtain behind me and stood there. This was getting real – and weird. I looked at my piles of stuff. I slowly took off my shoes and tank top. I started to get self-conscious about my panties. What ones will I wear with the cami? Does it matter?

Full strip. Full change. Toss on heels. I added a long pearl necklace, and I walked into the bright studio. Jenn had me start by sitting on a white couch against white sheer curtains. I felt awkward. Where should my legs go? How could I look casual while I was sitting in panties, a camisole and three-inch heels? And I was very aware that my necklace was hanging between my breasts, calling attention to the reason I was there.

Immediately, Jenn put me at ease. She walked me through how to sit, pose and lay. Where to look, how to hold me head, where my hands should go. And I just went with it.

A few clicks later, and it didn’t matter if I was almost naked, posing for photos. I wasn’t holding in my stomach or worrying about bulges. I posed on the couch, a chaise, and a bed, against the windows. I completely trusted Jenn to make this happen. She showed me a few of the photos on her camera. It was perfect. It was the prettiness I wanted.

We went through the same process with the corset, but with a more sexy lip color and a huge tulle skirt (her skirt added to the corset was FANTASTIC!). For the final look, I decided to go with a high waisted boyshort and completely topless with the scarf covering my nipples.

Then it was over. I changed back into yoga pants and a tank top (yay, hot flashes!), and Jenn and I talked about future sessions. I’m thinking the next one will be in May, toward the end of chemo. She’s super excited about being part of this journey with me, and I cannot wait to see how it all comes together.

I would have NEVER considered a boudoir shoot, but now I’m a convert. Completely out of my comfort zone, but I’m still riding a high from it. So, so, so happy that I did it.