After chemotherapy to treat her multiple sclerosis, Kelly Epps hated the way she looked without hair. She avoided mirrors because she felt like she didn't look like herself. Baldness was a constant reminder to her — and anyone who saw her — that she was ill.
“Nothing about me looked attractive,” Epps, 44, told TODAY. “It didn’t matter how much makeup I put on. If you put a cute outfit on, you feel cute. There was none of that. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get past the fact that I had no hair.”
But Epps, who lost her long, blond hair in November and often wears a hat, discovered the beauty in her baldness through her mother, Fran Brandon, when her hair fell out as well after she received chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant to treat her cancer in March.
Suddenly, Epps, 44, realized the beauty, courage and positive attitude she saw in her 73-year-old mom were just the things people told Epps they saw in her, but that she just couldn’t see.
“When I looked at her, I didn’t see what I saw in myself,” said Epps, of Omaha, Nebraska. “All I saw was how amazing she was and how strong she was and she was beautiful. I didn’t see the baldness as ugly, as I saw it in me.”
Epps finally believed that she, too, was bald and beautiful. “Seeing her completely changed how I saw myself,” she said. “It’s hard to deny the beauty in yourself when you see it in your mother and she looks exactly like you.”
Epps and her mom spoke with TODAY on Monday, several hours before Fran Brandon fell ill and was hospitalized on life support.
It was another setback in a tough year for the mother and daughter, who grew closer than ever as they supported and motivated each other through overlapping illnesses.
In March 2016, Epps was diagnosed with primary progressive multiple sclerosis, the more rare and severe form of the often disabling central nervous system disease.
Epps’ condition worsened over the summer, as she lost vision in her right eye and became wobbly. She worried about falling when she walked down the aisle on August 13, the same date as parents’ 50th wedding anniversary.
“My mobility had gotten very iffy and my legs, sometimes they work and sometimes they do not,” said Epps, who did walk to the altar and now uses a cane.
Three days after the joyous occasion, her mom went in for aortic valve replacement surgery. But doctors discovered a large tumor under Brandon’s breastbone, and further testing found tumors throughout her body. She was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer.
Brandon began chemotherapy in September, but unlike her daughter, she didn’t lose her hair.
That same month, Epps had a brain scan that showed further progression of her MS, and doctors suggested chemotherapy as a last resort to try to slow it down, she said. Epps, a pharmacy technician, agreed, hoping to remain mobile for her children, ages 18, 10 and 9.
“I was seeing such a decline, I was scared if it continued, I’d be stuck in a wheelchair,” Epps said.
At the end of October, she received her first chemotherapy infusion, a treatment she plans to repeat every three months for a total of two years.
Her epiphany came after months of struggling to feel pretty with her bald head. Following Brandon’s stem cell transplant, complications landed her on life support for about eight scary days. When Brandon awoke, her hair was gone.
"I didn't worry about it," Brandon said from her rehabilitation facility earlier this week. Speaking of her daughter, she said: "I'd seen her lose hers. If she can do it, I can do it."
Epps recalled her mother saying, “We’re twins now,” and asking for a photo of the two of them. On April 5, Epps posted one on Facebook, and said her mom loved hearing all the positive comments.
Hoping to cheer her mom up even more, Epps shared the photo with Love What Matters, alongside one of them from her wedding. To accompany the pictures, she penned a love letter about how her mom inspired her new perspective on being bald.
Brandon was touched yet surprised by the sentiments. “I don’t think of myself as being a strong person,” she said, “but evidently she sees me that way, which makes me feel real humble.”
Neither one wanted to become sick, but both expressed how fortunate they felt to have a loved one who understands exactly what they’re going through.
“We were always close, but this has taken it to a new level,” Epps said.
“I kind of feel lucky she and I have this together,” said Brandon, a mother of four. “If we have to have it, neither one of us is alone.”
Through her mom, Epps has gained confidence in her appearance.
“I’m more at ease with where I am right now,” she said. “The things I was hating about myself were trivial; they mean nothing. I am starting to see myself again.”