Books

02.23.14

A Breast Cancer Alphabet: F Is For Fashion Accessories

In her new book “The Breast Cancer Alphabet,” Madhulika Sikka dissects the pros and cons of post-chemotherapy headscarves, turbans and big shiny earrings.

You have been diagnosed with a terrible disease that for previous generations was almost always a death sentence, so it may seem a little frivolous to devote a whole section to fashion, most especially fashion accessories. But frankly, not enough attention is paid to fashion accessories at the best of times, and this is a moment when they come in useful (see “L Is for Looks”).

If you undergo chemotherapy, you will soon come to terms with the fact that you are bald (see “H Is for Hair”). Then you will spend an inordinate amount of time figuring out how to cover your head up.

My friend Lesley calls herself a “nostalgist.” In her book Let’s Bring Back she pines for the style and panache of times gone by. Things like handwritten thank-you notes, rolltop desks, and tennis whites. You won’t  be surprised  to hear  that she has a lot of time for head coverings of all sorts—hats, head scarves,  and  turbans;  boaters, berets, and safari hats. The world she evokes harkens back to a time of elegance and élan. Here was a bright side. I could use this opportunity to become as stylish and perhaps as divine as many of the heroines of yesteryear.

Chemo headwear is big business. My chemo started in the dead of winter and continued into the summer, so I got to go through some seasons during my treatment. I had a lot of knitted caps courtesy of the hospital volunteers and even my own knitting. I actually needed them, especially at night, because my head would get cold. I didn’t expect that. But most of the time I looked like a lumberjack (maybe it had something to do with the open-front plaid shirts I was wearing post-mastectomy) or a cat burglar!

So is there an elegant option? Turbans seemed to me to be the way to go. Elizabeth Taylor died while I was undergoing treatment. She, of course, had a brain tumor removed years ago, and her obituaries were an opportunity to remind us all how gorgeous she looked bald with painted eyebrows during her treatment. Try as I might, I knew I wasn’t going to look like Liz Taylor. However, look online and you’ll find pictures of her looking stunning in a turban during the 1960s. Sophia Loren and Lena Horne too— carrying off their turbans with grace and glamour. Go back further and find all those brass-balled dames of the 1930s—Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell—they could carry off the turban look without seeming injured or sick or just plain ridiculous. Check out some fashion magazines from the period, and you’ll find you can’t think of anything more ladylike and chic than a turban on your head (preferably with a large jewel smack in the middle of the front folds) and a fox fur around your neck. Unfortunately, plain ridiculous was how it looked on me. I don’t know what it was, maybe you needed a long neck, a larger forehead, or maybe you just needed to see yourself in black and white. “Mom, you look like a chemo patient” was the resounding opinion of my teenage daughters when I tried to go with the ready-made turban look.

Don’t worry if the turban is not for you. You will not lack for inspiration—flapper caps, floppy hats, peasant scarves, baseball hats, cloches, straw boaters, and, of course, a wig.

Big, bold, interesting earrings. When people see you bald for the first time, they are a little taken aback, so earrings give them something to focus on.

Scarves were my next option. I learned a few things about scarves. Silk slips off your head, so avoid silk scarves if you don’t want to spend the whole time touching your head to make sure your baldness is not peeking through. Scarves that are too big and have too much fabric will bunch at the nape of your neck if that is where you have the knot, and they will slip off too. Bandanna-size scarves in thin cotton seemed to work for me, tied in the back not the front (unless you are going after the Rosie the Riveter look). Here is another mystery about the whole covering-up-the-baldness thing. I had black hair. Never colored it, just stuck with my black hair regardless of what I was wearing. Suddenly it became imperative that my head scarves coordinate with my clothes. I had to get a peach-colored scarf to go with my spring clothes, navy for overcast days, gray to look more businesslike, flowery to look more relaxed. Why was I compelled to do this? Was it really necessary that I be all matchy-matchy from head to toe?

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‘A Breast Cancer Alphabet’ by Madhulika Sikka. 224 p. Crown. $14.55 (Madhulika Sikka)

There was a time in America when hats weren’t just for church. Hats were literally the crowning glory. Bonnets to wide brims, pillboxes to cloches, a lady always wore a hat. I wasn’t doing so well with the hats, so scarves were for me.

But if you can’t figure out the right head covering for you, bald may be the way to go (especially when it is hot). I found that what really helped me with the uncovered head were earrings. Big, bold, interesting earrings. When people see you bald for the first time, they are a little taken aback, so earrings give them something to focus on. You have license to go a little wild, and you are helping the people around you, giving them something to comment on beyond your naked head. That’s my rationale, and I’m sticking to it. Hoops, sparkles, stark, shiny—just have at it. You will feel a whole lot better.

Copyright © 2014 by Madhulika Sikka. From A Breast Cancer Alphabet, published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. Reprinted with permission.