Bold, Bald, and Beautiful: Part One

inked by Julia

A wise night nurse once said to me, “It is OK to mourn the loss of your hair; it’s not vanity. It is a very difficult trial for a woman.”

My name is Julia Gardner. I’m a 21 year-old Christ-follower who married the man of my dreams on June 28, 2015, and was diagnosed with Pre-B Cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia on August 15, 2015. If you do the math, we were just a day short of being seven weeks into marriage.1 Photo credit: Braun Photography

We had a beautiful wedding day in Cincinnati, and everything went exactly as planned. We then spent a week in amazing Venice, Italy, where we road gondolas, ate pasta, and lived the Venetian way. Michael and I arrived home, started nesting, and made our little rental house our home. I may have had an ER run for glass in my foot our third week of marriage, and at this point our insurance probably thinks Michael’s crazy for marrying me.

For our first month anniversary, we ate a piece of our leftover wedding cake together in our adorable kitchen. On our second month anniversary, we ate a replica version of our cake (thanks to Cake Diva in Waynesville) in the comfort of a hospital room. I have high hopes for our third month anniversary: eating dinner at 3:30 at my favorite restaurant in order to avoid crowds of people and protect my immune system.2 3

Everyone finds out they have cancer in a different way, and all those non-cancerous lucky’s out there want to know exactly how you found out.  For me, it all came on fairly quickly. My lymph nodes in my neck seemed a little strange to me one Friday; they weren’t swollen, just different. I noticed them on a drive to my house where I was meeting a group of family friends, one of which being a doctor. He felt them, noted they were a bit odd, and that we should just watch them for a bit. I agreed with that.

That same weekend, my mom and three sisters all told me at separate times how pale I looked. By Sunday, I needed two naps and was very lightheaded. To me, all these signs pointed to anemia. I made an appointment with my doctor that Tuesday to get some blood work and answers. I spent the next four days feeling my pulse over 120 after lying on the couch for hours. I couldn’t focus in my three-day pharmacy school orientation, and I finally called my doctor back for results on Thursday.  The nurse returned my call and informed me I was anemic and to continue the iron supplement they gave me.

I wan’t quite satisfied with that answer, so I requested for my results to be sent to me. When I received the results around 12pm on Friday, August 14th, I sent them to my parents, who then sent the results to a few of our doctor friends. Apparently, everyone who saw the blood test results came to the same conclusion, but no one informed me of the potential bad news. What the nurse failed to tell me was how elevated my white blood cell count was, and that my white blood cells appeared “atypical and immature,” something I knew couldn’t be good.

My family friend and primary care physician then pushed me to head to the emergency room, somewhere my husband and I knew would take hours and dreaded going. We just had dinner with my out-of-town in-laws who were staying with us that weekend while they moved my brother-in-law into college. We sent them a text that we were headed to the ER and left for a local hospital.

We spent about two hours getting fluids and blood work at this hospital before they spilled the dreaded beans. They were worried it was lymphoma or leukemia and needed to transfer me to their main hospital in downtown Dayton. We, of course, lost it. I was remembered saying, “Leukemia we can handle… that’s an easy one”. So I was optimistic from the start (I think).

I was poked and prodded constantly for 24 hours and I was told it was nothing, it was something, it was nothing, and finally it was definitively leukemia. Immediately after handing out the diagnosis, the doctor asked where I wanted to be treated. Everything was moving so quickly. I was desperate for a minute to process before making a decision. “Oh, hold on,” I thought. “Let me sob on my cute new husband’s shoulder for a minute before I make any decisions, please.”

We ended up choosing Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, the number two pediatric oncology center in the nation. I was transferred Sunday, and my treatment Day 1 began the following Wednesday. It’s been a wild ride, but honestly, I’m doing really well overall. I think I can admit to myself and all of you, that so far the hardest part is losing my hair.

I came into this mess with a head of long, curly, thick hair. And I was very determined to keep it as long as humanly possible. I asked every nurse and doctor and social worker when I should expect my hair to fall out, but they could only tell me this: “Oh, honey, everyone is different.” That was so not good enough for me. I needed to know the exact date I would need to shave my head.

4This is a picture of my adorable niece, and my long locks. 

I receive a chemo drug called Vincristine (it’s a nasty sucker) that causes my first bought of hair loss. I got my first dose on Day 1 of my treatment. If my memory serves me well, I started noticing my hair coming out easier about three days later. I, of course, thought it was a massive amount of hair loss, but I didn’t know what was coming!

My second week of chemo, I started losing hair in chunks. Everyone told me a fresh cut was a great idea, but I still wasn’t convinced. I let myself run my fingers through my hair, and watched handfuls come out. I thought I’d be bald in the next days. But alas, some of my hair held on.

The third week was miserable in every way. I was having tons of side effects from chemo, including a spinal fluid leak that left me bedridden for a week. In addition to all the bodily discomfort, my hair was a mess! It matted up, clumped out, and was impossible to brush. We called a family friend in and had her chop off my locks.

5This is the shortest my hair’s been since 1st grade, but I felt like a new woman!

Sadly, this cut could only last me a few days. By my fourth round of Vincristine, the hair was coming out faster and faster. Laying in bed all day caused severe bed head. I had one huge mat of hair that had fallen out but was stuck on my head. I woke up four days after my fresh cut, told my mom I need this hair off now, and she scheduled an impromptu haircut with my Aunt Polly.

My ANC levels were good, so I was able to leave the hospital on pass and meet her at her hair salon. Her shop had a private room just for this sort of thing, and it made it more intimate and emotional. I still had a lot of hair somehow, so I went for the pixie cut. This has made all the difference!

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I’ve had my ups and downs with hair loss during the last four weeks. Sobbing in the shower or just laughing through the pain seems to be my normal responses. As of today, I feel ready to let go of the last bits of hair.  I cannot predict my emotions as I take clippers to my head for the very first time, but I know everything will be ok, and I will accept my new look as normal. I dread the stares that I have admittedly given to others, but I’m still me, not matter what I look like! So let’s do this cancer thing.