George (with long hair) eating a pasta dish
I’m too busy enjoying conchiglioni ripieni al forno to get a haircut

I remember my first day at Goldsmiths in 2007, officially registering for the Masters in Journalism I had decided to pursue as I neared the end of my chemotherapy course. I’d almost forgotten I was still on chemotherapy: a measly pill of a low dose could have been my daily vitamins. My hair had grown back thick and wavy, and I’d even blagged my way through four months as a temporary charity fundraising manager over the summer. Nobody who met me would have guessed at my unfinished treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.

At the time, though, almost every conversation I had with someone new turned quite quickly to the question of what I’d been up to for the previous couple of years. I’ve never been hesitant about talking about my cancer diagnosis and time in hospital – but nor was I keen to kick off too many conversations with: “Hi, I’m George, I’m recovering from leukaemia; what’s your name and have you had any life-threatening illnesses?”

Apart from anything else, the MA was in many ways the symbol of a new start for me. Before I was ill, I’d loved working for Literary Review, but after my life had been turned upside down in so many ways I needed a change. After a couple of speculative job applications weren’t even acknowledged, I decided a postgraduate journalism degree would be a good step towards a career. Fortunately I was accepted. I’ve sometimes wondered how much my interesting story might have helped my application…

George and Mariacristina in Santa costumes for a fun run
Mariacristina wears her beard better

Registration at Goldsmiths required a form of identification, so I had my passport. As my new course mates and I queued up, still in the early days of finding out about each other, the photos in our ID inevitably became a good ice-breaker. For me, it also provided an unexpected opportunity to bring up the subject of my cancer in what I like to think was a hilarious way.

I was bald in my passport photo, my eyes were dark eyes and my unsmiling face oozed malice. The others frowned, laughing nervously as they wondered whether they’d signed up for a year studying alongside a released convict. “No no,” I said: “I was just in hospital getting treatment for cancer!” It definitely broke the ice – though for trainee journalists an accessible criminal as a source for stories might have been a bonus.

For 10 years from the printing of that passport, I could enjoy the double-takes of immigration officials as they looked at the photo, glanced up at me and rapidly back down at the picture, confused. It never took them long to recognise my face underneath the hair that had grown back – but it usually conjured up at least a smile.

George's passport photos
Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes: my passport photos (bowl, Tintin, bald)

Now, to Mariacristina’s relief, I have a new passport – and I look a lot friendlier than in the last one. I had secretly hoped I’d be able to renew when I’d lost my hair again after relapse and my transplant, but alas: it had all grown back before I could. Passport control is much more boring nowadays.

I thought about this recently when a friend posted a picture with a ‘colour expert’ and posed an open question about whether others had had their colours – “or any styling” – done. It was in a group for people moving forward from cancer and brought up the topic of appearance and self-esteem for people who have/had cancer.

Funnily enough, I’ve never had my colours done (though I did dye my hair black once to play a Greek-American character in a play). I’m not sure what it means. Nor have I ever worried much about my appearance – sometimes to Mariacristina’s despair. As long as I look respectable, I’m happy, and the most I’ve ever done with my hair was to use a bit of gel to create a Tintin, back when they were fashionable. Actually, I don’t even think it was fashionable – just more acceptable than the bowl my hair falls into naturally.

George nearly bald
It grew back every time!

Even when I lost my hair and looked rubbish and ill, my appearance was the least of my concerns. If anything, I enjoyed the opportunity to see what I looked like bald without having to make the big decision to shave it all off to find out. I didn’t mind looking ill, either – after all, erm, that’s exactly what I was. My self-esteem was never really affected by appearance, even through cancer and all its ravages.

But since my hair grew back after my transplant, I’ve had longer hair than ever before. And for the first time in my life I have a beard. Mariacristina likes it (at least when I remember to keep it tidy) and my nephews find it fascinating. I’ve never been very hairy at all, so even not shaving for a week only ever resulted in some pathetic straggles of almost invisible facial hair.

After I lost my hair, though, it came back voraciously. The hair on my head had some life, and my beard sprouted like a proper Viking’s at last. So I kept it.

George with very long, wavy hair (from someone else)
If I could just grow my hair this long…

It’s only now, though, that I recognise appearance has had a more important part in my leukaemia story than I had ever acknowledged. I still have my hair longer than usual, and I have no intention of losing the beard. That’s partly because I quite like the look, and partly because I worry that if I shave I’ll never be able to get a beard again – but the main reason is something else.

My life has changed a lot since my relapse and treatment. Some changes have been enforced; others I’ve made as a result of circumstances, mindset and priorities.

My beard is a symbol of that. Without any conscious effort, it’s become to me an outward reminder that I’ve had cancer twice, been through a stem cell transplant and come out the other side a new person in so many ways. My beard (to me, at least) shouts defiance and joy – and the occasional crumb of Mariacristina’s delicious cakes, to save for later.

George licking the spoon of tiramisù cream, with some on his nose
Save tiramisù cream for later in your beard – or on your nose

My changed appearance has given me a chance to make a positive statement about my life post-cancer. Life might have had to change, but I’m still here, and proud of who I am.

I’ve never believed we’re defined by our appearance. If that was the case, I’d never have been allowed through passport control. It’s so easy to make snap decisions about other people based on how they look, but how often do we know the full story behind the appearance?

I work in Shoreditch, collect records and have a Brompton (folding) bicycle. Anyone might assume my beard is just part of an attempted ‘hipster’ look (though it’s a bit more unkempt than most).

But sometimes it’s worth delving a little deeper… You never know what crumbs of meaning you’ll find within.

2 thoughts on “The cancer look – or, why I have a beard

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