Hello friend. I hope you found this article because you loved the gorgeous pictures of my long, flowing locks. I creative directed that shoot, shot by my best friend and mentor, Grace Bukunmhi, who has also shot Alicia Keys. You can read that sentence again. In fact, I think I could just write that sentence five more times and call it a day...
To be considered beautiful, nay, worthy to be shot by someone like that, was the manifestation of a dream 7 years in the making. I’m a hair model now. 36 years old, still living with Stage IV Metastatic breast cancer after being diagnosed on my 29th birthday...and a hair model.
It’s not, never ever ever, just hair. No, friend. Because I lost my hair, all of it, in September of 2012 when I began my first crippling round of chemotherapy. A few months later we would discover the worst - that the cancer had metastasized to the bone and became “incurable”.
In that time I started a beauty blog, and then a company, but also, my hair grew back. A totally different texture than before! My hands still don’t work - the result of neuropathy, an insidious little side effect of chemotherapy that shows no sign of abating. And it was in fact, scientists working on nerve regeneration, who unlocked the special Virtue Labs protein. I love science. I love representing this brand.
I have an amazing life, but it is one that is marred by the daily struggles of managing Stage IV Metastatic breast cancer. The life that includes hands that just can’t predictably wield a round brush and hair dryer/straightening iron like they once could, before I was cut open and sewn back up again 3 times.
But one of the hardest parts of my diagnosis, which continues to be the freshest, most painful cut, was the moment I discovered I was sick and thought, “OMG I’m going to lose my hair.” And aren’t I vain for caring about that?
But it’s never just hair. Being forced to lose your hair (and so, control of your outward identity, your sense of self, your “beauty”) still haunts me in a feral way, in a “this doesn’t make sense, why can’t you let it go” way. And I know I’m not alone because study after study on cancer patients have found the same thing.
It is terrible to lose your hair. It is terrible anytime something happens to your body that you can’t control. And that’s what it all comes down to - control. Controlling your own appearance is a true freedom - one I can seemingly only appreciate when it’s taken away from me.
Gratitude is counting someone else’s blessings instead of your own. I am grateful for every, single, good hair day. I focus on my gratitude for what I can do, instead of what I cannot - not my hands, not the pain in my chest from the lymphedema around my mastectomy site, not the other “little side effects” I won’t detail here. Because while I wait not so patiently for a cure for metastatic breast cancer, I know how lucky I am to be alive. Stage IV Mets breast cancer, which kills 100% of breast cancer patients, receives only a small fraction of the funding compared to “awareness.”
When I think of awareness I think of how much I wished to see pictures like this when I was first diagnosed. Images that showed that life does go on, in small and beautiful ways, every single day. And while my illness may be invisible, I hope my ongoing efforts to have an amazing life - despite having a very scary diagnosis - will inspire anyone who needs it, no matter what it is you struggle with.
I’m so grateful Virtue Labs let me address these issues with you - to encourage you think about supporting charities that give a significant portion of their money to research - including metastatic disease. To choose those, over organizations who focus their efforts on *awareness* because selfishly, and like so many other young cancer patients, early detection was not an option for me. My only hope is a cure.
But let’s talk about my hair for a second. At my most vulnerable I swore I would find a way to have long silky hair that I could drape, Lady Godiva style, over my mastectomy scarred breast.
I’ve used Virtue products for the last two years. During which time my hair became the glorious lion’s mane you see here.
I’m not a warrior, a survivor, a fighter - I’m a lover. I love my hair in a way that you can only love something that was taken away from you. It is an emblem of health. I have a really amazing life despite my disability. And really, really amazing hair.
There is still so much we don’t know about cancer, but there are very few things I don’t know about growing out your hair after chemotherapy - and I’ll be sharing those tips with you on our social media all this month.
Dena’s tips for growing out your hair:
1. Be gentle with it. If it rips and breaks it won’t grow. I treat my hair like I would a designer gown, which includes: a silk pillowcase, the best plastic detangling brush, and scrunchies or clips exclusively (never ever a thin elastic band!)
2. Eat all the colors - especially dark leafy green, beet red and Foods high in biotin like fish. I also take a Biotin supplement to help with hair, nail, and nerve strength.
3. Mask once a week. It helps repair damage that occurs from normal wear and tear.
4. Cut down on styling time and heat exposure- I use a low temp setting while blow drying, a microfiber hair turban to soak up as much water as possible first, and smoothing cream to protect my hair from the heat styling.
5. Protect it from the sun! I wear a hat always, and when I’m out and about I’ll put some of my favorite mask into my hair before braiding it to the side. Looks adorable, and protects my precious hair.
6. Use fewer, better products. This is my rule in all things. But if you look at your “budget” you’ll often find that you can replace many things with a few, more expensive (you get what you pay for) products, free from damaging ingredients that could be inhibiting your growth.