I Am Not My Hair
Date Published: August 13, 2020
In late March, while coronavirus cases surged in New York City, Shahonna Anderson, 40, was diagnosed with stage three cancer. She’d already had an orange-sized tumor removed from her chest, and now she faced daily radiation and two cycles of chemotherapy at The Tisch Cancer Institute at Mount Sinai. “After five minutes of crying, I said, ‘Alright, we gotta do what we gotta do. So let’s go!’” she recalls. A born optimist, Ms. Anderson found herself pushed to the limit. To beat cancer, she would have to rely on friends and family like never before—even when asking for help was uncomfortable. In this interview, she talks about how that and learning to accept chemo’s impact on her body helped her become cancer-free.
Shahonna Anderson: 00:00
It took a while for me to get used to seeing myself 30 pounds heavier and now completely bald-headed. But once I got used to it, it's a beautiful thing. It's liberating. It made me feel free.
From the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City, this is Road to Resilience, a podcast about facing adversity. I'm Jon Earle. It started in February with a stiff neck. Shahonna Anderson thought maybe she'd slept funny. After all, she was 40 years old and healthy. But then her left arm went numb and she started having trouble breathing. One thing led to another, which led to an operating room where surgeons removed a tumor the size of an orange wrapped around her heart. She spent a week in the hospital recovering, and then on March 30th, she got the diagnosis.
Shahonna Anderson: 00:53
I did a VC call with my doctor. And they informed me that we're going to do radiation and, Shahonna, we have to let you know that you have cancer.
Stage three cancer in her thymus gland. Part of the immune system.
Shahonna Anderson: 01:08
It took a lot. It took a lot for a person that's always smiling in spite of the situation, for that first time I couldn't smile. And they gave me five minutes to let me digest everything they told me. And after the five minutes of crying, I said, "All right, we got to do what we got to do. So let's go." They were like, "Are you serious?" I said, "Let's go. When are we going to start services? When are we going to do treatment? When do you need me to come in? And what do I need to do?" And they were shocked. They said, "Wow." I said, "I had something the size of an orange wrapped around my heart." I was like, "So now you're telling me it's only two percent left? So you took out 98 percent? Then I'm fine. Let's go ahead and do what we have to do."
I'm fascinated by people who find ways to cope when things just keep getting worse. My guest today is one of those people. While New York City struggled with COVID-19, Shahonna fought life-threatening cancer. A born optimist with a big laugh, Shahonna was pushed to her limits by the disease. And then the pandemic pushed her even further. Every patient is uniquely resilient, but what struck me about Shahonna was the way that she tapped into her support network, claimed her new body, and focused on what she could control. It's textbook resilience. Whatever you're up against right now, I think if you take a page from her playbook, you'll feel uplifted, too. After Shahonna got the diagnosis, doctors told her she needed radiation and two cycles of chemotherapy. Understandably, she was scared. What would the chemo do to her body? Her mind went to her dreadlocks. What kind of hair did you have when you started this?
Shahonna Anderson: 02:49
I had locks that were buttocks length. I could literally sit on my hair. And I mean, it was a lot, and it was long, and I loved it, and I flipped it, I turned it, I braided it, I dyed it. Anything you can do to it—I did it. And I loved my locks.
Your hair was you.
Shahonna Anderson: 03:07
It was me, definitely. One hundred percent. That was my Samson.
Her Samson—the character in the Bible whose superhuman strength resides in his luscious locks. Shahonna's hair was part of her identity. She could barely imagine herself without it. Losing her locks was an experience she'll never forget.
Shahonna Anderson: 03:28
Before my second round of chemo, one of my locks had fallen out, just fell out. Just ran my hands through my hair. And it fell out. I said, "Okay, it's just one lock. I can hold off." The next day I came home from radiation, and I was pulling my hair back, and more locks started to fall out. And at that point I said, "I can't watch my hair fall out."
Fortunately, Shahonna had a plan. She did something that resilient people do. She tapped into her support network and focused on what she could control rather than what she couldn't. She called her sister and her cousin on video chat, and they put on a song that could not have been more perfect for that moment, it's India.Arie's, "I Am Not My Hair."
[SONG PLAYS] 04:21
'97 dreadlocks all gone. I looked in the mirror for the first time and saw that, hey, I am not my hair. I am not this skin. I am the soul that lives within.
Shahonna got out or clippers. Her sister got out hers. And, miles apart, they got ready to cut their hair together.
Shahonna Anderson: 04:44
My sister's husband asked me, "Are you ready?" I said, "I'm about as ready as I'm gonna get." I took my shot of Tito's, and I clipped my first lock off. And as the music continued to play, and my sister and my cousin cheered me on, I just closed my eyes and I just started to cut them all off. And by the time I was done, I had a little, tiny, tiny, curly little afro. And I looked at my sister, and my sister was bald. And I told her, I said, "Thank you so much." Because it's a big thing. It's a big step. She has a husband, she has daughters and stuff, and they see her with all this hair, and now she doesn't have any hair. So now it's like, why is she doing this?
Shahonna was so used to being the helper that it was hard for her to accept help, or even feel worthy of it. Especially when, because of the chemo, she didn't feel like she was much fun to be around.
Shahonna Anderson: 05:45
There were points where I felt bad. There were points where I felt like I was being a burden on them and they let me know, "Shahonna it is okay. You've helped us. You never asked for help. You do everything. You come to children's birthday parties. You act like a clown. When we're feeling bad, you are the goofiest person we can meet." They're just like, "Yo, you make us feel good, so why not make you feel good?" And it took me a while to accept that—that someone is just doing something just because, and not that you looking for something from me, but because we love you. We want you to be okay.
Shahonna's close friends and family found different ways to support her.
Shahonna Anderson: 06:31
When I couldn't cook for myself, somebody else is cooking. When I didn't feel like moving out of the bed, Gary made me move. When I didn't feel like talking to people, they would call constantly. Would not give me a break! I would be like, "Can I take a nap?" "No, we just calling to make sure you're okay. It's too early for a nap. Why are you taking a nap now?" I knew it was because they loved me more than anything. And they helped me push through what I was dealing with. They helped me realize, Shahonna, this is not it. This is not your end.
And at the center of her support team was her fiance, Gary
Shahonna Anderson: 07:12
He is a nurse and he was on the front lines. And he would come home every night and look at me and just go, "You're beautiful. You know that?" Even when I was going through my chemo and radiation. I think one day I slept for eight hours straight, woke up and thought I missed my treatment. He was like, "No babe, it's okay. You don't need to go to treatment this morning." He kept me smiling.
That support allowed her not just to accept the changes that were taking place in her body, but to claim them. Starting with her hair.
Shahonna Anderson: 07:45
It took a while for me to get used to seeing myself 30 pounds heavier and now completely bald-headed. But once I got used to it, it's a beautiful thing. It's liberating. It made me feel free. When I felt the breeze blow on my scalp, I was like, "Whew. I ain't feel in a long time. That feels good!" And I noticed the confidence that I had. Other women look at me. Other women actually ask, "Oh, you cut all your hair off. Why would you do that?" Then when you explain, it's like, "Wow." And you never really know like, wow, my story just helped somebody else. Like this is way cool!
I said at the beginning that I'm fascinated by how people navigate periods in their life when—it's like they just can't get a break. Shahonna was already dealing with so much. But things were about to get worse. Because just after she got her diagnosis, Gary's brother got sick.
Shahonna Anderson: 08:40
He lived upstairs and he had kidney issues, but he was doing fine. One day he fell. Said he just didn't feel good. Gary helped him get back into bed. And then the next morning, that was it. It was like, it was no, no signs, no, no warning. There was nothing that you could do.
He tested positive for COVID-19 after he died. Shahonna says the news crushed his wife, who had cancer herself. She died of COVID-19 complications a couple of weeks later. And so one day, on her way back from radiation treatment, Shahonna found herself at a Zoom funeral for her two close relatives lost to the pandemic.
Shahonna Anderson: 09:29
That was the weirdest funeral I've ever been to. Even though you're remorseful, you couldn't really show that feeling. You couldn't really show the affection. And it felt like a funeral. Like I grew up in a home where if we had a funeral, it was more of a home going, because you were happy about life. I've never really experienced a true funeral. And I was like, this really hurts. I'm like, I've never felt this before. And I don't, I don't like this and I can't watch. And I had to shut it off.
I'm imagining somebody hearing this and I'm sure they're going to think what I'm thinking and what I've thought every time I've heard your story, which is that you and your family are so incredible. And you're so resilient and you've been through so much. So to have that happen, to have COVID-19 happen on top of cancer, and to still be getting back up is such an inspiration.
Shahonna Anderson: 10:27
You have to. People don't understand. When COVID-19 hit, it was hard. And it hit everybody hard. I went through a whole operation without having family present. So this is a time where you just give thanks for the people that are in your life. And most people look at it when I say it, maybe it's a little bit morbid, but one thing we are promised in life, that's death. How you live your life depends on how your death would normally be. So when you have just life, enjoy it. Have fun with it. If you want to run down the streets stark naked, if that makes you feel good, just don't get caught by the cops. Go ahead and do that if that's gonna make you feel good. Whatever is going to make you feel good, do it. Enjoy this life while you can, because, man, you can't come back from the grave.
How are you feeling these days?
Shahonna Anderson: 11:29
I went on the 14th and I had my follow-up checkup with Dr. Doroshow. And her assistant came in the room and we was chit-chatting like we normally do. And she said, "I have something to show you." I was like, "Okay, great. Now what? What's wrong now? I got more health problems?" She was like, "No." She turned the screen around to let me look at the screen. And she was just like, "Do you know what this is?" I said, "I believe that's my PET scan that I just did last week." She said, "And this is the PET scan from when you first came in." And there was a big, giant, blue mass that was wrapped around my heart. And the one that I took on the 14th—it was clean. Nothing there. No blue marks. The cancer was gone.
What was it like for you to get that result?
Shahonna Anderson: 12:22
I cried just like I'm doing now. I cried like a big baby. I FaceTimed everybody. I hugged and kissed my doctor, which was probably against all sorts of protocol. And she was like "Shahonna, it's okay." I was just so happy because I beat cancer's a--! And if I could do it, anybody is capable of doing it. You just gotta remember that cancer is really like a private walk with the close people that are closest to you. It's not something you have to discuss. And those people that love you, they will understand why you're tired. They will understand why you can't do certain things. But now I got energy. I'm just excited about everything. And I'm happy that my body is getting itself back together. It's slowly but surely. I know it's going to take truly about a year, maybe a little bit longer, for my body to heal completely. But I'm fine with that. I am now comfortable in my own skin again. And it's like, all right, this is just a process of something I have to deal with. We'll be alright.
And now that you're cancer-free. What are you looking forward to?
Shahonna Anderson: 13:36
I'm gonna get married and make a bunch of babies! I am 40 years old. I have waited to have children because education and all those other things were more important. But now—you got the right man, now it's time to have some kids, make my mother happy. So she can have some grandchildren and she could finally leave me alone and give me a little break. She needs something to do other than me.
Are you going to reattach your dreads, you think?
Shahonna Anderson: 14:09
Yes! I have them in a bag, and we have a little bit of fuzz that has grown in, as we see the hairline starting to come back in. I am going to reattach them. But once there's enough hair up there, I will reattach them. In the beginning, I felt like there would be a rush. Now I'm not in much of a rush. Now, it's just like, okay, when there's something up there, we will deal with it when it comes. But my locks have been washed, died, dried, and put in a little wrap and we're ready to go when I'm ready. But right now we're just gonna enjoy this for what it's worth. It's summer. I could deal with this.
Is there a closing thought that you would like to leave listeners with?
Shahonna Anderson: 14:52
Don't give up on yourself. Be as phenomenal as you can be. Resilience is key to all success, no matter if you're fighting cancer or what your fight is. Just don't give up on yourself. Don't let anybody make you give up on yourself. Even when you get tired, keep mustering up that strength and keep going. And you'll be alright. That's it. You just gotta keep going. When you look at your kid, if you have a kid, look at your child and go, "Alright I got something to live for." If you don't feel like you got anything to live for, live for yourself, live for your dog, live for the picture on the wall. Live for something! I don't care—if it makes you happy, and that's what you feel you gotta live for, then live for the picture. Do it!
That's all for this episode of Road to Resilience. Thank you so much, again, Shahonna for letting us share your story. Road to Resilience is a production of the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City. It's made by Katie Ullman, Nicci Hudson and me, Jon Earle. Lucia Lee is our executive producer. If you enjoyed this episode, please rate and review us on Apple Podcasts. It helps other people find the show. Thanks. From all of us here, thanks for listening. We'll see you in a couple weeks.