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What shaving my head for cancer research taught me about hair

When I shaved my head I learned many things, but perhaps the best life lesson I learned is that hair is just that: hair.
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

As a pediatric oncology nurse, I often warn parents about the awful side effects of chemotherapy — nausea, vomiting, aching, fevers and loss of appetite to name a few. Inevitably, one of the first questions they ask is, “When will my child lose their hair?”

To parents, hair loss is a billboard announcing to the world that their child is sick; that their child has cancer. And the moment hair starts to fall out, their child looks different. Once the kids themselves realize they look different, it often affects them emotionally. I’ve cried alongside young boys and girls as we shave the small amount of hair they have left and they run their hands across their bare head for the first time. It’s their new normal, yet they’re reminded that they're sick every time they look in the mirror.

St. Baldrick’s is an organization that raises money for pediatric cancer research by shaving heads. They shave kids, adults, men, women, boys and girls who volunteer to raise money and awareness for childhood cancer research. When I attended my first St. Baldrick’s event, I was most impressed by the bravery of the women who stood on stage and had their heads shaved. They were beautiful — every single one of them! Their eyes got brighter, their smiles bigger and it really got me thinking.

Courtesy of Erin Friedman

When you look around a crowded room, you notice blondes, brunettes and redheads. You notice people with long hair, short hair, straight hair, curly hair, frizzy hair and kinky hair. For better or worse, our hair defines us. It puts us into a category. It tells a story — but that story might not necessarily be accurate. Maybe the blonde girl was stereotyped before she even had the chance to speak. Perhaps the redhead got teased as a child for looking unique. The girl with coarse, tight ringlets could have spent hours at a salon getting it relaxed, wishing it was less time-consuming. Those bald girls on stage could no longer hide behind their hair or be placed into a stereotype or category. It was right then that I decided I wanted to be brave like them and shave my head to raise money for the kids I care for day-in and day-out. I wanted to look at my patients and show them that bald really is beautiful.

Courtesy of Erin Friedman

In March of 2011, I personally raised almost $9,000 and shaved four ponytails of hair off my head. I was team captain of an amazing group of women who raised over $23,000 for pediatric cancer research. My team included nurses, nursing assistants, moms, daughters and even a 10-year-old cancer survivor. That's right, a 10-year-old girl who knew first-hand what it's like to lose her hair to cancer volunteered to do it again in order to help others. Talk about inspirational. She sat beside me as the clippers raced across our heads.

As I looked out into the crowd with tears in my eyes, I saw my grandmother and aunt who are both cancer survivors. I saw some of my patients who were well enough to be in a crowd. Sadly, I also saw parents whose children didn’t beat the horrible disease. They all came together to support kids with cancer. As the tears streamed down my cheeks, I realized I wasn’t crying because my hair was suddenly gone. I was crying because so many people showed up for me and the kids for which I care. I cried for the parents with only sacred memories left of their beloved children and I cried for those who triumphed over the disease. I cried tears of sadness, happiness, joy and love.

This amazing survivor had cancer at just 3 years older. She decided to shave her head to show other kids that bald is beautiful.Courtesy of Erin Friedman

I learned many things when I shaved my head, but perhaps the best life lesson I learned is that hair is just that: hair. It doesn’t define me the way my personality or attitude do. I realized that I had been hiding behind my hair like a small child hides behind their “blankie.” When I looked in the mirror, I saw my freckles, my smile and my eyes easier than ever before. I had a sense of freedom and almost a weight lifted off my shoulders. When I was nervous, I would reach up to twirl or touch my hair and found that I didn't really need it when it wasn’t there. I learned that I was stronger than I originally thought. I had a new sense of self-confidence. My hair had become just hair.

My team, "Girls Gone Bald," was made up of pediatric oncology nurses, staff, family and friends.Courtesy of Erin Friedman

There are so many things about our appearance that can change, but our confidence, personality and attitude are a constant. No makeup or hair product can alter that.

If I can share one thing about what I learned from the experience, it would be to embrace yourself. Be beautiful in your own unique way. You are more than the clothes and shoes you put on every morning. You are more than the makeup on your face. And you are definitely more than your hair.