How one woman beat cancer at 21

Oct 7, 2015 at 10:00 a.m. ET
Image: RMT PR Management

A memoir about a young woman battling cancer isn't typically anyone's idea of a light-hearted, pleasurable read. But, Sophie van der Stap's The Girl with Nine Wigs: A Memoir is an absolute joy to read — in part because she manages to find the joy in having cancer.

Van der Stap — who is now 32 — was a 21-year-old university student in Amsterdam when doctors discovered she had a rare and aggressive form of cancer called Rhabdomyosarcoma, located near her lungs. Because of the position of her tumors, one out of her three treatment options were already off the table: Doctors would not be able to operate on and remove the abnormal growth. That left chemotherapy — and chemo meant watching her hair fall out in clumps, from the top of her head to her eyebrows and lashes, down to her legs and even pubic hair.

Some might argue that, when faced with a life-threatening disease, the very last thing on anyone's mind should be her looks. At that point, it becomes necessary to put yourself in the shoes of a young adult who went from studying, dating and clubbing to lying in hospital beds next to people more than three times her age. And, age aside, humans still want to feel like themselves. Cancer or no cancer, we want to be able to hold onto our sexuality, sensuality, bravery, playfulness and lust for life.

And that's where van der Stap's nine wigs come in.

After shaving her head bald, the young author found a theater store that sold wigs and began discovering that each one she wore and named — whether it be romantic "Daisy" with her long blonde curls; sensual "Uma," an auburn bob with bangs modeled after the one Uma Thurman wore in Pulp Fiction; or no-nonsense redhead "Sue" — brought out an aspect of her personality that she felt beginning to dissipate as her body filled with chemo. In a way, her wigs were her own personal medicine.

"I see the wigs as my friends who helped me in the process," van der Stap says. "Like writing is now, they were something that came to me. I remember they gave me what I wished for at the moment: anonymity, so that strangers wouldn’t see what I feel. They also gave me the liberty to stop caring and to explore all of these identities. They gave me life and a way to enjoy life."

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More often than not, society sees a cancer patient first and the person (in this case, the woman) second. Stella, Sue, Daisy, Blondie, Platina, Uma, Pam, Lydia and Bebé — all of the wigs van der Stap called her friends — made it possible for her to take a cancer vacation to find the courage and charisma she needed to tackle her treatments. This included taking a simple walk outside when everything inside of her fought her to stay in bed and, yes, talk to men, flirt and be 21. They were a crucial reminder of the person attached to the IV, who she was fighting to save.

Van der Stap effortlessly weaves together fun stories about her wig-wearing, club-hopping life with cancer and hilarious accounts of her doctors and nurses with more somber scenes, like waking up after a surgical procedure to find her grandmother sitting on her bed, with her enormous blue eyes trailing her now scarred body with sadness. She's lonely and positively petrified at times. But she's also extraordinarily hopeful, positive and able to see the good (yes, the good!) that can result from living with a disease.

"I had a moment after I woke up after the surgery with grandma next to me of thinking that, even if I lost everyone and had my grandmother there, it would be enough to enjoy life — that’s what I felt at that moment," she says. "I had a choice to be negative, but there was still a decision for me to be the person I wanted to be — with or without cancer."

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Another result of cancer is that van der Stap began — immediately — living in the moment and discovering what was most important in her life. (One of my fave lines from the book is: "There’s a surprisingly close connection between cancer and life.")

"I suddenly enjoyed very much the people I had around me," she says. "I enjoyed their presence, their being, I took full joy in being around them. Gratitude is something that comes in difficult moments because of the sudden awareness of everything you have.” 

The Girl with Nine Wigs is a best seller in Holland and has been translated into 16 languages. It was even turned into a film in Germany in 2013. St. Martin's Press published the English-language version of The Girl with Nine Wigs on Sept. 29. If you're in the market for a read that will lift your spirits, while delivering the honest truth about cancer from a woman who refused to let it define her, say hello to your new favorite book.