As I write this, I am sitting in a salon chair with pink dye drizzling down my neck. Once a year, my typically blonde hair is transformed to a new hue of bubble gum, and it tends to lead to raised eyebrows. Because of this, I thought it might be helpful to explain myself.
It started six years ago. A meeting ended and a fellow teacher turned to me and said, “By the way, I have cancer.” Some might balk at the bluntness of this delivery, particularly considering the fact that she and I are such close friends that she was in my wedding. However, this is keeping in par with both of our personalities, as we each have a particularly dry and often dark sense of humor. In no way was this funny, but the directness seemed the only way for her to bring a little levity to the situation.
In the weeks that followed, we found that the news was much worse than we could have ever imagined. The hopeful, pink vision we typically have of this disease was quickly darkened as we were informed that it was stage-four cancer, which had spread to her liver, and she had only a few months to live. To say that we were devastated is an understatement. The school I taught in was a very tight-knit community of teachers who spent just as much time together outside of school as we did inside those concrete walls. Shannon was in her early thirties at the time and had been working at the school for more than ten years.
During those initial weeks, she began chemotherapy and the rest of us huddled together in classrooms to brainstorm ways we could help. Often when friends and family members face a life-threatening illness feelings of hopelessness set in as you realize you have literally no control over the cells that are mutating and taking away someone that you love so much. To combat this hopelessness, we began doing anything we could think of to help. We put together care packages for her in the hospital, made meals (that she really didn’t need or want), shopped for wigs, made inappropriate cancer jokes and researched different treatments so that we might be able to understand the words that had now become a part of her daily life. Eventually someone had a new idea – let’s go together as a group to get pink hair extensions.
We made an evening of it with Shannon. First dinner, then we each took turns having a pink extension clipped into our hair. Local salons offer to do this in October, and in turn part of the proceeds are donated to cancer research. Were we saving lives that night? No. But it gave us a moment to simply enjoy one another and feel as though we were a part of something together.
Throughout the next few months we were amazed as Shannon continued teaching, only missing one day a week for chemo. Then more time passed and we realized that the treament was actually working. This gave us a bit more drive and determination to start getting to work. We organized a fundraiser to raise money for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. A local restaurant donated their space, my band offered their services and t-shirts were ordered. You will never see an event come together as quickly and efficiently as you will when you have a group of type-A teachers working together for a cause. Before we knew it, there were hundreds of people spilling out the doors and we had raised more than $10,000, all of which went directly to an organization with an A+ charity rating.
Amazingly, the next year Shannon was still responding to treatment, so we loaded in the car and put in another pink extension. We began plans for a second fundraiser and raised an additional $5,000. We watched Shannon as she attacked every day like a boss. Her hair began to grow back, and she continued to serve children in the classroom through every step of this process. It was beautiful.
Six years later, Shannon is still rocking life. In fact, we celebrated her birthday just last week. We witnessed a true miracle at the hands of her doctors at Georgetown University Hospital. However, even though those days seem far behind us, I still continue with the pink hair.
Sadly I learned the hard way that cancer is not always pretty in pink. My first real experience with death came when I was eight years old, when Pam, a beloved family member, passed away from breast cancer at a tragically young age. Pam had a young son and often cared for my sister and me while my parents were at work. She was a tenderhearted soul who cared deeply for her family. It was heartbreaking.
Again in my twenties I was forced to learn that often lives are taken from us too soon by this awful disease. My dear Joanie, a woman who had been like a second mom to me for years, also passed away due to breast cancer. I felt as if a hole had opened up inside of me as this vibrant and passionate women went home to be with God after years of remission.
It might seem odd that I feel as though pink hair honors them. However, what I’ve found over the years is that when I suddenly change my hair color, it opens the door for a lot of conversations. Children, congregation members, colleagues, people on the elevator, and strangers in a grocery store – it gives me a chance to share the stories of love and loss, of triumph and heartbreak. I can tell others how warm and loving Pam was or that she had the coolest Christmas lights ever. It allows for memories of butterscotch pie, vacations, holidays, and cool iced tea on the back porch with Joan to resurface. I can speak with strangers of the awe I feel every time I think about the grace and dignity I have witnessed from my friend who received a diagnosis much too early. And it helps me remember that you can honor God both in the way you live and the way you die.
Could this money I spend on dying my hair be spent towards more research? Probably. Please be assured, I also see the value of donating to these worthy organizations. However, I also feel as though honoring their stories is important. I have spent my life surrounded by steadfast, strong women, and it is an honor to be able to share their lives with others. This is why my hair is pink.