When I lost my eyebrows to cancer, I didn't realise how much I would miss them

As I laid on the bed surrounded by the usual trappings of a clinical setting, I found myself in an all too familiar scenario.

These environments have made up a huge part of my life over recent years, but for once I wasn’t in a hospital. I wasn’t in a breast clinic, waiting to be seen by a surgeon, or in an oncology clinic about to be hooked up to a drip that would plug chemotherapy into my veins.

I was waiting to get my eyebrows back. And I couldn’t have been more thrilled.

Microblading is a tattooing technique used to add semi-permanent pigment to the skin. With a tool made up of tiny needles, technicians fill out eyebrow shapes with what looks like lots of individual brush strokes.

It’s something I’d heard mentioned within the cancer community online, and my sister had long been encouraging me to try it, but money and time – plus the business of staying alive and then recovering from the trauma of cancer – meant I didn’t get around to it.

After marking up my face with a series of precise measurements and drawing on what my brows would eventually look like, the beautician began.

The procedure was painful, like being scratched hundreds of times on an area that is essentially just skin and bone. But it was no worse than any of the other tattoos I have; it was certainly no worse than my mastectomy, and the pain didn’t last as long as the chemo side effects.

For the first few days after microblading, your eyebrows can look quite severe – especially if, like me, you’ve started with nothing. After an initial panic that I had done the wrong thing and was going to look like Frida Kahlo for the foreseeable future, I remembered the beautician telling me they’d fade by up to 50% after the first week.

And they did. They settled down, and I could raise my eyebrows in surprise. My brows could furrow once again.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015 when I was 26. Even though I’d found a lump in my breast, I never imagined it would be cancer.

I guess it’s a cliche but it’s true that the moment a doctor said ‘you have’ and ‘cancer’ in the same sentence, directed at me, my whole world was turned upside down and inside out.

I underwent a mastectomy, six sessions of chemotherapy and 15 sessions of radiotherapy. I don’t remember when my eyebrows came out. It wasn’t like my hair, which shed in clumps.

One day, my eyebrows were there, then they weren’t, and they never came back. Missing in action. Gone but very much not forgotten.

I can’t say that the loss of my eyebrows impacted me more than any of the other physical changes that happened while I was in chemo (the memory of being clean bald never really leaves you), but aside from my mastectomy scars and reconstructed breast, it was the one that lasted longest.

It was also the one I saw most often. Boobs are generally hidden under clothes, but eyebrows are on show for everyone to see – or rather, not see. Even the best hand-drawn ones can be rubbed off or come off in the rain and I was caught out by both many times.

For the three years during which I was having ‘active treatment’ (surgery, chemo and radio, plus nine other surgeries to deal with problems thrown up by my mastectomy) I was very much concentrating on surviving.

I didn’t really think about my career or plans for the future. I definitely didn’t think about my eyebrows.

So it sounds like a trivial thing to be excited about, but the idea of having eyebrows again, of regaining one of the many things that cancer had taken without my permission, was a big deal to me.

It wasn’t much of a priority until this year. I finished treatment in March 2016, had my last surgery some time in 2018 and I had spent a lot of time recovering mentally, physically and emotionally.

It wasn’t until I made a joke about being brow-less to my friend Kris as we were recording a podcast together that I really thought it was time. I think she realised that my humour was a thinly veiled attempt to make myself feel better and told me that 2020 was the year to do it.

So it sounds like a trivial thing to be excited about, but the idea of having eyebrows again … was a big deal to me.

Until then, I hadn’t realised that seeing the bald face looking back at me in the mirror every morning was like looking back in time to when I was sick.

I hadn’t understood that drawing them on every day, despite how good I had got at it, was chipping away at my self-confidence and self-worth. Looking at myself in the mirror without eyebrows had become a micro-trauma in and of itself.

I know it sounds silly. I thought it was silly too. I underestimated the power of a good brow.

I had become all too accustomed with how a well-drawn eyebrow changed my face, but getting my eyebrows done permanently was more of an emotional comfort than I realised it would be.

I know that having my eyebrows tattooed back onto my face doesn’t erase the memories of looking more like a potato than a human. Nor does it eradicate the fact that I have had to piece myself back together one day at a time. But it has improved my confidence and how I feel about what I see in the mirror – and that in itself is an act of progress.

If having my eyebrows microbladed after four years of them being absent has taught me anything, it’s that those little things that we tell ourselves don’t matter have more power than we think, especially in the wake of a life-changing trauma.

While survival is a priority during cancer treatment, ‘beauty’ often falls by the wayside, but it’s crucial that it doesn’t.

There are so many people dealing with and living with cancer and they have just as much right as a healthy person to feel ‘beautiful’ – if only so they can recognise the person they see in the mirror when their life is otherwise unrecognisable.

I thought I had got used to my bald face. Maybe I had. But I don’t think I will ever get used to the fact that I had cancer once and that the chemo that saved me was why my eyebrows did a runner.

I guess now, I just don’t have the daily reminder when I look at myself in the mirror and that feels like a tiny victory.

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