We were sitting in the lounge room the day we realized my little sisters hair was falling out. Mum found the bald spot, as round as a twenty cent piece, right at the back of Cassie’s head. Cassie had the most beautiful hair. It was light chocolate brown, long, and curly. Not tight, stiff curls, but soft, loose ringlets that I had always been jealous of.
At first we thought maybe she had brushed it too roughly, but the bald spot was just too round, too perfect, too bare. Over the following weeks, her hair fell out in clumps. It was all over her pillow when she would wake up in the morning, and all over the bathroom floor.
What was left of her hair kept getting knotted up with the hair that was falling out, so we took her to the hairdressers in the hope that they could help. They hadn’t seen anything like it, but they trimmed the knots out and she was left with a thin bob.
Finally after visiting Doctors, Dermatologists and Naturopaths, we found out that Cass had Alopecia, a condition where the immune system mistakenly attacks the hair follicles, causing hair to fall out.
The day of school photos, we helped Cass use hair clips to try to hide the bald spots that now covered the majority of her head.
One day, standing with her back to the bathroom mirror, she used a hand held mirror to look at the back of her head. She burst into tears. She hadn’t realized how bad it had gotten, and that’s when she said “Just cut it all off.”
My aunty came over and shaved Cass’s head that night, and we went into town to try and find a wig for her. Finding a wig at 7pm on a Friday night in Bendigo is not the easiest task. Eventually, we found one at a shop that sold hair products. It was straight, darker than her natural colour, and she looked different in it, but it made her feel better.
She wore it to school, and when she played netball she just wore a beanie. I remember watching her team play, the other girls running around carefree with their long ponytails, only thinking about the competition. And then there was Cass, with her little round head, two steps behind everyone else, holding on to her beanie, constantly afraid it would fall off.
Her eyebrows and eyelashes fell out next.
Mum found out about a woman in Melbourne named Angela, who makes human hair suction wigs for Alopecia sufferers and chemotherapy patients. An appointment with Angela involved having a cast of the persons head made from plaster, which was then made into a silicone mould that would suction to the head. Cass got to choose her hair colour and style, which was exciting for her, and I remember the day she finally got her wig, she was sitting in the back of the car, asking if she looked like Jessica Alba now.
Cass became a different person when she wore her wig. It was almost like she had a split personality. She went through a bit of a rough patch, and I think she felt like she had to be a certain type of girl to make people like her, to make up for the fact that she had Alopecia.
Though she was initially bald, parts of her hair began to grow back, but it was always very patchy, and never grew long, it was just that soft, downy hair you would find on a babies head. Because some of the hair had grown back, the wig wasn’t suctioning to her head as well anymore and she always felt like it was going to fall off.
I remember watching my skinny little sister getting ready for school with a lump in my throat. To make the wig suction, she had to wet the little amount of hair she had, and comb it back, then put the wig on and press it down really hard. She always wore a headband to help keep it on. I felt so sad that she had to go through this ritual every single day, while other teenage girls had so little to worry about. I often thought how strong she was, and how if it had been me who had lost my hair, I wouldn’t have coped half as well. Somehow she got on with life.
She was teased at school for wearing a wig. The same group of older kids would follow her around at lunchtime each day, asking where she had gotten her wig and telling her to pull it off. Most people probably knew, but Cass wanted it to be a secret. I wished that those kids who teased her could have seen that skinny little 14 year old girl getting ready for school in the morning.
It’s been over seven years since we discovered that first bald spot. Since then, Cass has gone through six wigs. Today I took her to buy her seventh wig, because it’s her birthday next week. Her eyelashes and eyebrows have grown back, but her hair is still short and patchy.
The grin on Cass’s face today when she picked her new wig was contagious. She couldn’t stop smiling as she studied her reflection. Hair is something that we take for granted. We complain when we have a bad hair day, but Cass has taught me that, like all things in life, we should be grateful for what we have. I don’t know if Cass’s hair will ever fully grow back. I know she would like it to, but in the meantime her attitude towards it is something that I admire. In her own words, “It’s only hair.”