Chemotherapy is a liar and a thief. It lies, because it makes us feel impossibly sick–so sick we cannot possibly recover. It steals, because it causes most of us to lose the physical characteristics we associate with personal identity: our hair, eyelashes, nose hairs (trust me, you’ll miss them more than you might think), facial shape, and sometimes fingernails and skin. (You don’t lose *all* your skin, of course, but it becomes a crackly, dried-out thing you might not recognize.)
This was me at the start of my cancer journey:
This is me today:
I’m four weeks out from the last of the eight dose-dense chemotherapy treatments for triple-negative breast cancer (meaning my cancer didn’t feed on estrogen, progesterone, or HER-2) and every day I look for new hair on my head. And every day, I have to wait for tomorrow.
Which, frankly, sucks.
After my diagnosis last November, the prospect of losing my hair actually bothered me more than the loss of my breasts. (I’d never showed my boobs in public, but can’t say the same about my hair.) I liked my hair. I wanted my hair. I was terrified about how I’d look without it.
(Note: I should have worried about how flippin’ cold my head would be, but that didn’t occur to me until much later.)
My doctor and my oncology nurse navigator suggested I consider cutting my hair before it started falling out, to ease the psychological burden of the loss. I listened to their advice . . . and blew it off. I hadn’t had short hair in three decades, and I wasn’t going to surrender it voluntarily.
About a week later, my attitude changed. I decided that I wouldn’t let cancer–or chemotherapy–make the decision for me. Historically, many people tonsured themselves–shearing off their hair–when entering monastic life or undertaking a pilgrimage. Chemotherapy was a pilgrimage, of sorts; a journey from death to life. I accepted the challenge, and tonsured myself voluntarily as a sign of accepting the challenge to survive:
About a week later, my hair started falling out in clumps. Each time I ran my hand through the stubbly bits, they came off in my hands. Overnight, I went from “buzz-cut warrior” to “radiation victim”:
It took about another week for me to achieve the look my son referred to as the “baby bird” – and which less-kind people might have called “the Gollum.”
I stayed this way for much of my chemo journey. Also, I discovered that hair does more than improve your self-esteem . . . it keeps your head really warm. Conversely, the lack of hair makes your head exceedingly cold. Not a comfortable thing, for me at least. My head got so cold it ached if I uncovered it for any length of time.
Fortunately, I had lots of lovely caps.
I recommend buying caps and scarves in various weights, so you can stay comfortable at a range of temperatures. Bald heads don’t regulate themselves the way hairy ones do, and I needed at least six different hats to ensure I stayed comfortable.
Three days ago (almost a month to the day after my last taxol infusion) my head started feeling unusually hot – a sensation that remains regardless of the temperature in the room. For the first time since I lost my hair, I’m comfortable without a hat (for periods of time, anyway). I’m hoping this means my hair is getting ready to make a re-appearance. I’m so excited to see it again.
Regrowth is a process that doesn’t happen overnight, so I’m trying to be patient. (Not one of my strongest skills, but cancer and chemo have helped with that, some.) I’ll share my progress here on the blog, and look forward to the day I “complain” about getting my hair in my eyes again!
Have you been through chemotherapy, or hair loss from another cause? How did you deal with the mental and physical effects? I’d love to hear your story too.