May 11, 2016

50 Strands of Grey: Lessons from Brain Cancer.


When my first grey hair popped up, that little voice inside my head was telling me this was the beginning of the end.

The end of my youth.

The end of my 30s.

The end of my beauty.

The end of trying to remain natural—’cause clearly I was going to need to dye this head of hair someday soon!

The end of feeling any sense of control over ageing.

Since I was a little girl, youthful looks were paraded as one of the keys to a happy life. Airbrushed media articles and impossibly perfect supermodels aside, I had wonderful examples of graceful ageing at my doorstep. My mom followed in my Grandma’s footsteps with admirable naturally beautiful skin, drawing upon their mixed Sri Lankan roots.

Along with youthful skin came pride, frequent compliments, and a reputation to maintain. My mom felt her best when she was well put together with fashionable clothes, the latest haircut and tasteful makeup. Daily musings over the years were often scattered with stories of how a random person was so surprised to learn that my mom had children (no way!) or my Grandma had grandchildren (OMG!).

I can still vividly remember one of the many times my mom and I were in the local grocery store and the cashier heard me call the woman beside me “Mom.” She took a double take and said she could swear we were sisters! It was clear that I was the younger teenaged sister, but I was proud we looked like sisters. Fast forward 20 years later and picture the same grocery story scenario, except the cashier can’t figure out who is older.

By then my ageing complex was already in full force. Being “sisters” and looking up to my mom, I had always compared myself to her and expected that I would age in the same way. I had created a whole scenario in my head where family and friends—and society at large—expected me to age in the same way.

In my late 20s, when creases started forming at the corners of my eyes, and some of my friends started doing preventative Botox, I had an esthetician tell me I was prematurely ageing. All of my dreams of an easy, genetically induced youth were shattered.

I innately knew this wasn’t a problem of ageing at all. This was a problem of how I viewed myself, of misplaced preconceptions. Of self-love, or lack thereof. I vowed to try my hardest to deal with my insecurities from the inside out before resorting to topical solutions.

So when, about 10 years later, the first grey showed up, I was presented with another challenge—another “opportunity”—to practice acceptance of what is. For a seemingly simple thing, it wasn’t that easy to shed old habits.

My impending over-the-hill and official cougar status started getting me down as each new grey hair popped up month by month. My beauty routine now not only included examining new wrinkles in the web of crow’s feet but also sifting through my dark brown hair for new shiny whites. And wondering how had I gotten so old. It seemed like yesterday I was 23 and the whole world was ahead of me.

And then…in January, 2016 my mom was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The post-surgery pathology report classified it as glioblastoma, the most aggressive brain cancer. It was devastating news.

And it was a gift.

It sparked some incredible transformations. For the first time in her life, at 64 years young, after years of spending time and effort to make sure she looked just perfect in public, my mom instantly didn’t care about what her hair or makeup looked like.

She didn’t care that several bald spots were shaved the day before surgery, chunks of black hair falling onto the floor at her feet. She didn’t care that little round “surgery GPS stickers” that looked like spongy foot callus cushions were pasted on her forehead. In fact, we went out shoe shopping with her bald spots and GPS markers and at checkout she asked if they had a brain tumor special! My mom had the cashier laughing and joking that she had been debating telling my mom she had a “little something” on her forehead. I was in awe of my mom’s resilience.

For the first time in 25 years, she didn’t give a second thought to whether grey hair was making her look old. She let her grey grow in. She didn’t touch up her roots every few weeks like she had for years and years.

She didn’t care that she earned a few inch diameter bald spot on one side of her head from brain radiation. She wore hoodies and called herself Mark Zuckerberg. Sometimes she wore headscarves in public—and sometimes she didn’t—because if she was out, it meant she was alive and functioning and…what else mattered?

Suddenly all priorities were put into perspective. Life was put into perspective.

And a strange and unexpected thing has happened to me since then. I now look into the mirror, finding new silver strands every week, and I have actually grown quite fond of these strands. As in, I enjoy seeing the contrast of new pearly silver strands against my resident chocolate brown ones!

These new strands are signs of the emotional distress of the past few months, and of the strength it took to get through. They are markers of the long and happy almost four decades I have been fortunate to experience. They are gentle reminders that life is short and we need to use our short time to focus on what’s important.

Good health is important. Family bonds are important. Self-love is important. Grey hairs are…hair. The universe loves throwing us challenges to work on, giving us countless opportunities to resist and suffer through, or to accept and work through. While I still often struggle with those wrinkles, it sure feels good to finally view my 50 strands of grey as a welcome addition to a life in perspective.


Author: Michelle Borner

Editor: Catherine Monkman

Image: jaimekop/Flickr





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