ask polly

‘How Can I Feel Confident While I’m Going Through Chemo?’

Photo: Petri Oeschger/Getty Images

Dear Polly,

I am writing you today in hopes of finding some confidence, some sort of spark that will get me going. I have only ever dated once before, and it was for under a year. With that information alone, you’d just assume that I am bad at dating. Maybe you’ll decide that’s true. However, I feel it has something to do with how guarded I am.

When I began dating this man, things were great. We had fun, we were each other’s best friends. It worked so well. Then I was diagnosed with cancer. I told him then and there that if he wanted out, he could go. Cancer is a hard thing to deal with, and watching your partner go through it has to be a hard pill to swallow. He insisted, however, that he was going to be with me 100 percent of the time, that he would visit me in the hospital during chemotherapy, and that we would hang out when my counts were high. And for a while that’s what happened. Then I lost my hair. I was heavily medicated and decided to just shave it all off (it had been itchy and falling out anyway). He arrived after the fact and left within 20 minutes. I figured this was more to do with the fact that I was absolutely zonked out from my pain meds than anything else, but he effectively ghosted me. Didn’t say anything to me at school, didn’t look my way. Then, after a month of me trying to reach him, he texted me and said “Hey, things have changed, I feel like we should probably just be friends.”

What had changed was my appearance. It hurt more than words can ever describe. I felt hideous, I felt insecure, and I felt just so lost. I knew I had bigger things to focus on, but I wanted that love and companionship that a relationship brought with it. Comfort and happiness, almost a little escape within my treatment. Is that selfish? Maybe so, but I felt like it wasn’t unreasonable.

I finished treatment, and had a few little flings after. My hair grew back, and things were going pretty darn well, but I never let those flings progress. I don’t know why. I just felt unsure. I didn’t want the pain that came with a break up, because it sucked. That’s no way to really live, I know, but I was keeping everyone at an arm’s length. I’ve just been scared — scared of not being enough, not being attractive enough for my partner, and scared of hurting them if I ever got sick again.

Then I got sick again. I’m now doing chemotherapy once again, and I’m in the process of beating this thing. I’m also in college and want to have these experiences: I want to date, I want to be loved. How can I open myself to these things while being bald, something that I associate with not being enough? I hate wigs because they make me insecure about the fact that they are fake. I feel like a fraud wearing them. I need to figure out how to make myself approachable, how to open myself to love from others, and how to trust in a guy, because I am so insanely frightened at the thought of giving my heart and safety to someone else. But I want that. Now more than ever, I want a partner in crime, someone who will have fun with me, someone who will face hard times with me, too, because relationships aren’t always perfect. I just want to feel loved, and I don’t know how to open myself to that. Please, any advice, even the harshest type, is appreciated.

Tough Lover

Dear Tough Lover,

You really are someone with tons of love to give. You don’t call your ex-boyfriend a single bad name. Unfortunately, that means that I’m going to have to step up and do it for you. That guy is a sad little chickenshit who doesn’t understand what love is. He thought he did! I’ll give him that. He thought he could show up for you. He was sure he could play the hero.

But true heroes don’t run away at the first sign of trouble. True heroes — what an overused word, right? — lean into the hard stuff. They like to work hard. They enjoy being challenged. They pride themselves on showing up for the really hard stuff because they understand that the hard stuff transforms you. When you let the truly difficult, impossible, scary parts of life come at you full force, and you embrace all of that darkness, that experience turns you into a whole new form of being, something resilient and alive and almost supernatural.

If we’re going to understand what a hero is, though, we have to reconstruct our definition of the word hero using our imaginations. Because the way the word hero is commonly used in our culture isn’t good enough. People think that heroism is thoughtless: Some people are brave and fearless, other people aren’t. Some people run into burning buildings to save others, other people hide. Some people take a stand against injustice, other people don’t.

That’s not how I see heroism. You can be very afraid and anxious and still welcome the bad things and the good things into your life with equal commitment. You can be conflicted and still fight against inequality and oppression. True heroes don’t tell themselves fairy tales about how brave they’ll be. As a result, they don’t piss their pants and run away the second they don’t feel good anymore. They know that showing up for people you love a lot includes feeling afraid or ambivalent or even FEELING NOTHING sometimes. They understand that human beings are complex and wanting to run away is forgivable.

In fact, your passionate drive to continue to connect and find love is closely related to your ex-boyfriend’s drive to run away. I know that sounds odd, but stick with me: We are simple animals with a lot of competing urges inside our bodies. We have to tune into those urges and enjoy them and also tolerate them in order to accept who we are. Your ex didn’t run because he wanted someone MORE ATTRACTIVE, even if that was the story he told himself and everyone else. Your ex ran because he couldn’t accept that he wanted to run.

You know how you stay with someone through thick and thin? You accept that you’re going to want to run the fuck away sometimes.

Let’s resist stamping that with a seal and turning it into a rigid moral, okay? Sometimes people have to leave. Sometimes people stay but they don’t do it heroically at all, because they’re not even there, they’re more like ghosts who haunt other people’s lives out of obligation. The world of relationships and commitment and love is so goddamn complex that we can’t possibly understand or judge or attach a clean moral to every fold of it. In fact, while we’re in this open-minded space, let’s go ahead and forgive your ex for being the sorry little pudwhacker that he is. He’s young and well, what has he been through so far? He hasn’t been through much, I’m guessing. It’s normal to be young and to be so afraid of yourself and ashamed of yourself that you run away from the people, places, and things you love the most.

RIGHT NOW WE ARE FORGIVING THAT SORRY PUDWHACKER. Mmm, it feels good to forgive! Sad little frightened men deserve our compassion, don’t they? I mean, christ, you were still you! You were just you without hair! What a narrow little lizard brain that guy has. But okay, sure, sickness is frightening. Back to forgiveness! Basking in forgiveness!

There. Your ex is forgiven.

Onward! Right now, you’re actively becoming a real hero. Inside my mind, you aren’t becoming a hero just because you have cancer and you’re bald and you’re aiming to beat this thing, as you put it. In my mind, you’re becoming a hero because you’re learning to reach for exactly what you want from this life. You might not recognize this, but the fact that you’re learning to reach for what you want also tells me that you’re in the process of learning to love yourself for exactly who you are and where you are in this moment. Because right now you’re bald, and even though being bald signified a low point when you were abandoned by your ex, you’re stubbornly saying, “I still want things. I still deserve things.” That in and of itself is beautiful. That alone makes you what I would consider the truest form of hero. Nothing is more precious and heroic than vulnerably wanting things that feel beyond your reach, and insisting on wanting them in spite of a world that tells you that it’s weak or stupid to do so.

Notice that I keep saying “in my mind”? My personal vision for you DOES NOT MATTER. What matters is what works for you. What matters is your vast, brilliant imagination and what it tells you about where your strength and beauty and innovative soul are living. Every single person who’s facing some nightmarish reality or another is completely unique, and it’s up to that person alone to frame their nightmare however they want, in whatever way works for them. The people around them, who love them, are challenged to follow their lead as much as possible.

That part is important, because we need it to break you out of this space where you’re pretty sure that your baldness makes you unlovable and undesirable. You’ve used your imagination to feel stronger during this hard time. You’re using your imagination to picture “beating this” and to picture loving and being loved. Now you have to use it to invent a version of yourself that’s mesmerizing and worthy of love.

We’re talking about a VIGOROUS IMAGINATIVE PROCESS, okay? Not because you’re not worthy of love — you already know at some level that you are — but because we need to get to a place where YOU know what you’re MADE OF. We need for you (and you alone!) to build a vision of you that includes everything you depend on, everything that got you through the chemo the first time and got you through being ditched by your ex and led you to this point where you’re still here, looking for love, eyes open, reaching out to me for help, even. HEROIC! You wanted help from your idiot — er, sorry, FORGIVEN ex, and instead of growing cold and hard over that disappointment, here you are, reaching out again. THAT IS THE DEFINITION OF BRAVERY.

So stay in that space where you know you’re brave and you know that you deserve things and you know your heart is wide open, okay? Let your imagination flow from there. You’re heroic because you can invite the good and the bad straight into the center of your life, and even though you’re afraid, you’re also feeling that fear and wrapping your arms around it and giving it a bear hug, because it’s a part of you. You aren’t running away from yourself. Even when you feel vulnerable and lost and rejected, you don’t abandon yourself. You stay by your own side.

The traits I just described to you are extremely fucking rare and exceptionally attractive. All we have to do is find a way to manifest those traits in your physical self. That means that you have to meditate on your strengths, and feel very proud of them, every day. It means you have to kick shame to the curb when it tries to chase you down. And it means that you have an opportunity to build, DARE I SAY, A LOOK out of your courage of conviction about yourself.

You don’t like wigs, we’ve established that. Now I’m just going to throw out a few options that will sound all wrong. This is just brainstorming, but it’s important, because it will get you thinking about what you like and what you don’t like. Maybe you need a totally bald head: Bold. Shave it every morning. Maybe you want A NOSE RING AND A TATTOO IN THE MIDDLE OF YOUR BALD HEAD. Lose all previous associations with these things and just eat them up, taste them. Maybe what you’d love is a very nice PINK WIG that announces its fakeness the second you walk in the door. Maybe you want to wear the same lavender-colored onesie everywhere you go from this day forward. Maybe you want black leather, rings, ball gowns, feathers.

Or maybe you just need to have all of those options stuffed inside your head at once, and what you really want is exactly what you have right now, except you add this: Your shoulders are back. Your eyes are open and unapologetic and forgiving. You can see when people flinch at your bald head and you almost enjoy it now. You let the good and the bad flow into your senses and sometimes that includes fear and sometimes you feel braver than you have in your entire life. You hold yourself like a dancer now, because you understand your power and how rare it is.

I’m so sorry for what you’ve been through, and what you’re still going through. But I don’t feel sorry for you, because I see you clearly and I know how much you already own. You have a hold on the beautiful darkness and conflicted wonder of this world now, which is something that most people will never have. Do you know how much that matters?

It matters the most. You’re alive and living in full color already. Trust me when I say this to you: That’s rare. But there are rare people who can see that clearly in you, too. They already think you’re beautiful. You won’t need a pink wig or a ring in your nose to convince them of anything. All you need is to open your eyes to yourself, and to them. All you need is to open your heart, and suddenly, the world becomes a patchwork of open hearts, lighting up, like the view of a city at night from a plane.

Forget the ones who are still living in darkness. Find the other lights. Show them your light without fear, and also with fear, without shame, and also with shame. This is the easiest part, and it’s also the hardest part: standing still, right where you are, and showing them your light.


Ask Polly is moving to an every other Wednesday schedule, but there’s a new, free Ask Polly newsletter to fill in the gaps; please sign up here. Polly’s evil twin Molly’s newsletter is here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?here. Her advice column will appear here every other Wednesday.

All letters to become the property of Ask Polly and New York Media LLC and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.

‘How Can I Feel Confident While I’m Going Through Chemo?’