About My Hair: A Journey to Recovery

An inspirational book for chemotherapy patients
by Marcia Reid Marsted

Review: "Creating a thing of beauty from the pain of cancer"
By Gina Barreca
01/08/2001 Hartford Courant

"First, I am a photographer. Periodically, I am a cancer patient." Compelling, devastating, and powerful, this is the first line of photographer Marcia Reid Marsted's work titled "About My Hair : A Cancer Journal." Marcia describes the remarkable photographic diary that she kept to document the changes to her hair that she "knew would occur as I dealt with surgery, a cancer diagnosis, and the chemotherapy that would be necessary postoperatively."

I met Marcia for the first time over lunch at the Altnaveigh Inn. I'd hurried through a busy morning at work (despite being on sabbatical--or perhaps because of it--I was more than usually frantic right before the holidays) and arrived a few minutes late for the 11:30 appointment. She drove up from her home in Canton but still made it to Storrs in time to go to the Benton Museum at UConn before lunch. Even though I had virtually no distance to cover, I was running late. Breathlessly undoing my scarf even before I walked in the restaurant door, I knew that I would recognize Marcia even though we had never seen one another before. I knew her face, eyes, and, yes, hair from "About My Hair," her book-in-the making, and I felt confident about our meeting. When an elegant, attractive, and smiling woman holding a portfolio rose to greet me, I was immediately at ease.

Having read the prose and looked at the photographic images she produced, I knew that this would be a long and important discussion about everything in the universe, and a little more besides. I was right. To confront cancer--"cancer" itself a word that, not very long ago, was not even mentioned aloud by many people, but whispered or abbreviated as if it were a secret vice--is an act of unmitigated bravery. You are brave because you have to be; you are courageous because where there is courage, there is life.

From out of the shadowy wells of courage, many surprises can emerge: understanding, patience, empathy, compassion, awareness, spirituality, humor, connection, love, intimacy--and art.

Marcia's work is a mosaic of all these elements. She embraces the most personal moments, telling us about her responses to her experiences with diagnosis, doctors, the very idea of cancer, survival, and the triumph of the everyday. Through her use of photography and her spare but dynamic sentences, Marcia shapes her individual experience into a detailed and beautifully honest one; she forges her world into a work of art.

This is not illness as grand opera; it is the quotidian, the familiar, and the simple transformed by the experience of cancer into something else altogether. The clear, clean prose gets to the point, as do the accompanying images. "This is just about as bald as you can get," she writes in the lines accompanying one of the photographs of herself. "My eyelashes and eyebrows were gone, but I got pretty good with an eyebrow pencil....The wig looked good. I washed it once a week which was a nice change from the daily wash which had been my norm.... Actually, as I mentioned earlier, I bought two wigs at their suggestion, but although they were supposed to be the same, I liked one much better than the other and wore it most of the time. Luckily it lasted. I liked getting compliments on my nice haircut."

In some poignant textual moments, Marcia's husband Jeff interjects his own dialogue into the piece. "--The hair became the focus, not the cancer," explains Jeff. "I think that helped us both." Later on, after the chemo is complete, Jeff writes a response that is haiku-like in quality: "Must be a strange period for all involved with cancer treatment. Anti-climactic is not quite the feeling. Everyone wonders--Now what happens?"

Awarded a CT Commission on the Arts Grant for "About My Hair," Marcia is now a writer in search of a publisher. After attending a workshop called "A Gathering of Women Photographers," she was encouraged by an overwhelming response to use her work to help others undergoing chemotherapy. While several organizations have shown an interest in helping her distribute her work and get it into the hands of those who might most directly profit from reading it, Marcia hopes to find a way to make the map of her odyssey available more generally. The journey has been difficult, but Marcia Reid Marsted has made a thing of beauty from it.

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