How This Cancer Survivor Maintained Her Sanity—And Style—During Chemo

"Why Not Make Cancer Chic?" Asks Fashion Blogger Kara Ladd

On a cold morning in December 2016, my life changed completely. I had just had surgery on my leg five days prior, so I was working from home, putting the final touches on a sustainable Christmas gift guide for my blog, BoundlessFashion.com, when the phone rang with what I assumed was a routine nurse check in. “Hi Kara, this is Sarah, your primary physician. Are you sitting down?”

It turned out that the tumor they had removed, which I had been assured was most likely benign was, in fact, synovial sarcoma, a rare form of soft tissue cancer found in one in a million young adults. Tears streamed down my cheeks and my body convulsed as I hung up the phone. I was 24 years old.

For over a year, I had suffered from pain in my left foot, similar to the needle-like sensation you get when your foot falls asleep. I had seen dozens of experts and undergone countless tests but no one could figure out what was going on. In fact, if it wasn’t for my aggressive spin, yoga, and barre schedule, I most likely would have brushed it off. But I couldn’t stretch properly and that was interfering with my form. At my annual physical, my doctor suggested I get an MRI. I received the images and report via email while I was at work and almost fell out of my chair when I saw the words “tumor” next to a photo of an enlarged mass intertwined with a nerve behind my left knee. I dropped everything, and immediately hailed a cab to my doctor’s office. “There’s a 99.9% chance it’s benign,” she told me. “People get these all the time.” Her words still haunt me. My surgeon assured me that many people live with benign tumors in their bodies, but I didn’t want to take any chances. I opted to have the mass removed a month later because thanks, but no thanks, I would rather not have a tumor in my leg – benign or not.

Eight days after my diagnosis, one PET scan and one meeting with my oncologist later, I found myself lying wide-eyed on a stiff hospital bed attached to a 24/7 chemotherapy pump—an apparatus I came to refer to as my “toxic boyfriend.” I was already hooked up to two hanging bags of Ifosfamide that made my mouth taste like dirty saltwater when I asked my nurse how chemo would affect my future fertility – a serious concern that was never addressed during my initial consultation. I wanted to rip the tubes out from my arms and scream when I found out that my eggs were at risk. How could my doctors not mention that? I hope to freeze my eggs six months after my treatment is complete, but I still harbor grave concerns about how this will affect my ability to have kids.

It didn’t take long for another scary issue to surface: what chemo would do to my hair. As a fashion blogger who regularly posts outfit shots and selfies, this was no minor concern. When my doctors told me that all of my hair would soon fall out, I was determined to prove them wrong. I had heard stories about a cold cap that supposedly prevents hair loss (recent studies of women getting chemo for early stage breast cancer have found that at least half of the women using one of these newer devices lost less than half of their hair). Unfortunately, I quickly discovered that scalp hypothermia only works for certain types of chemo and the nuclear cocktail they had devised for me was not one of them.

My first big haircut—my friends and I made it an event!

I was not going to sit idly while my follicles slowly gave up their battle with the chemo drugs so I put on my Valentino flares and called up my girl-army. Before I knew it, I was rave-dancing to Selena Gomez at Bumble and Bumble as 11 inches of my hair fell to the floor. I loved the rocker pixie-cut I got that day—it was so liberating to have short hair—but even that didn’t last long. I buzzed my head a week later because I couldn’t bare waking up next to my boyfriend (the real one) with a hair-covered pillow every morning. And so, the wig hunt was on.

Turns out my insurance wouldn’t cover a cent of my wig (even with the requisite doctor’s prescription). I briefly considered selling my favorite Prada bag, but thankfully I didn’t have to. My father’s company created a GoFundMe that raised enough money for me to buy my first prosthetic: a long thick brown wig made of human hair that looks deceptively like my normal hair. Thanks to everyone who donated—and a story written by TBN founder Amy Synnott in The New York Post—I can now rock a pink wig one day, and a blonde one the next. I’ve also been able to explore alternative cancer remedies like energy healing and vitamin-C drips.

Cute winter caps make it easy to disguise that this is actually a wig.

But my progress has not been without setbacks. One night as I was rubbing coconut oil on my bald head, I gazed into the mirror and realized the follicles on my head weren’t the only strands suffering: my eyebrows were also clearly under siege. Traumatized, I instantly dove down a Goggle rabbit hole until I found real-hair eyebrow wigs. I know: It sounds dubious. But I had nothing to lose—except more brows—so I ordered a pair and they are awesome! So much more realistic than simply drawing on brows with a pencil. Making my way through cancer treatment in style hasn’t always been easy, but I’ve risen to the challenge, scouring thrift stores for second-hand designer head scarves and rocking a series of turbans on my blog like the eco diva that I am. When I’m not wearing one of my head wraps or wigs, I proudly pose for my #ootd photoshoots bald. Why not make cancer chic?

As frightening as this diagnosis has been, it has also been a catalyst for positive change in my life. I now live every day with a brighter sense of intention and purpose—to sustain my health, style and the world around me. I’m currently fighting through my fifth chemotherapy session (second to last!) and while many women my age are obsessing over who screen grabbed their latest Snapchat and how to get their hands on a Kylie lip kit, I find myself less and less fettered by the FOMO so common among my fellow millenials. In fact, as I sit down for yet another round of chemo wearing the sustainable clothing I promote on my blog, I can’t help but realize that I’m more present and mindful than I’ve ever been before.

Kara Ladd

Kara Ladd

Kara Ladd is a leopard print enthusiast and matcha addict who never turns down a non-toxic face mask. Ladd currently resides in New York City working as the Partnerships Editor at Hearst Digital Media, Editor-In-Chief of Boundless Fashion and a freelance writer for a variety of fashion-focused sites.