Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

Being bald for the 3rd time

Being bald for the 3rd time

One of the fears first time cancer patients have is losing their hair due to treatment.  I’ve found that this fear applies to most women and men facing the prospect of going through the types of chemotherapy causing hair loss.

Flowing locks are symbols of our unique identities.  We do what we can to enhance our personas.  Both men and women often dye their hair when graying takes over.  Men go to great lengths to restore their dead follicles if dreaded male patterned baldness creeps into their lives.  Women can also lose their hair to alopecia, but it’s fairly rare.

As a nation, we each spend about $300 billion a year just on home hair care products.  On top of that, a year’s visit to the beauty salon can run $500 up to $5,000 annually depending on the salon selected and services rendered.  Cumulatively, women average 41 minutes a day just styling their hair at home, which can amount to 7 months of their lives.  One poll noted that the average woman spends 72 days during her lifetime just shaving her legs.

You can see that as a culture, we spend a lot of time and money on the fibers growing out of our skin, whether to enhance the ones on our head or destroy the hairs in unwanted locations.  We wouldn’t do that if we thought hair was unimportant.

As I sit here with my bald head, I remember the first time I faced the prospect of losing my strawberry-blond locks in 1999.  Sure, over the years I had a love-hate relationship with my hair.  My sisters both had thick hair and mine was very fine.  They wore ponytails; I wore a mousey-tail.   I had to be careful to select hairstyles that pumped up the volume versus making my hair look like a flat tire.

The thought of losing my hair was like losing part of my identity.  When you have cancer, most people can’t tell you have a life-threatening disease.  You look normal.  But when you lose your hair with some chemotherapy treatments, it’s as if you are wearing a neon sign shouting, “YES, I HAVE CANCER.  LOOK AWAY.  HAVE PITY ON ME.”  You leave the land of the healthy and enter the land of the sick.

On the one hand, getting poison pumped into my veins to kill cancer cells was what I wanted to have happen.  Who needs out-of-control cells crowding out and exterminating perfectly functioning normal cells?  But really, does the chemo have to kill off my follicles too?  Oh, man!

So what to do?  After the first chemotherapy treatment, it would take a few weeks for my hair to start falling out, beginning with a few random strands and then a fistful.  I didn’t want to wake up with a tangle of hair on my pillow or shampoo my hair, only to find much of it knotted up and clogging the drain.

Instead of waiting for the fateful day, I asked my hairstylist to shave my head in a back room of the salon.  She first cut the majority of it off, then buzzed the balance as my husband and daughter watched.  I felt lightheaded and a little sick to my stomach after the deed was done.  That night, I slept with a cap to warm my cold pate.

I visited a local wig shop to get substitute locks but was unable to find anything matching the color of my normal look.  I tried on blond wigs but they made my sallow skin look even greener.  The shop owner suggested I try a short dark red wig just to see what I thought. I liked it but was unsure.  She offered to let me wear the wig out in public, and if I wanted to buy it I could, but no pressure.

Walking around Costco in a wig made me feel strange.  The wig was scratchy.  It wasn’t my color.  I thought it might be tilting to one side.  I felt conspicuous and checked out any glances my way to find out if people were staring at me.  What I discovered was that no one much cared what I had on my head.  They were too busy tending to their own business.

I bought the wig the next day, and then I wore it to chemotherapy that week.  I looked at all the other chemo patients sitting in their loungers with bags hanging off IV poles; poison seeping into their veins with quiet clicks marking the infusion rate.  Of those who had chemo that caused baldness, very few wore wigs.  Most donned caps; some went au natural.  The four hours of treatment were not very comfortable with the hot, itchy wig on my head, as the nausea-inducing liquid invaded my circulatory system.  I wished I could dump the wig and just wear a soft cap, but I was too insecure to just go hatless.

After that, I wore soft caps when going out in public anonymously and a wig to work or to social events.  This is also how I handled the second time a few years later when I again went bald due to chemotherapy needed to treat the spread of cancer to my spine and pelvis.

This year marks the third time I’ve experienced chemo baldness.  I have yet to put on a wig.  I had my son shave my head at home like he did the second time, and I asked him do it about a week before my hair would start to fall out.  This time, my hair really bothered me once I found out I was to go through another hair-killing round of chemo.  I found it irritating to wash it, style it, and sleep with it.  I wanted it off.

I discovered an excellent source of soft caps ( and invested some of the money I would normally spend on haircuts on a new crop of head coverings. No wigs in public; if people stare at me, I smile, say hello and move on.  Friends and family know I’m bald so why hide under a rug?

I’m still not leaving the house completely bald.  Chemo makes me overly sensitive to sunlight and I don’t need to face a bout of melanoma.  I’m also a weather wimp; my head gets too cold even on hot days in air-conditioned rooms.

I’m saving a lot of time not doing my hair; however, being retired, I have the luxury of spending my time as I wish.  No more nicks shaving my legs as those hairs vanished a week or so ago.

Do I wish I still had my hair?  Yes I do.  But I’d rather kill those nasty cancer cells that now have decided to invade my sternum.  So I’ll live with being hairless for awhile and avoid watching those commercials with models primping their impossibly long, silky, perfectly styled tresses.

Illness Magnet

It’s often said that “Opposites Attract” but what about people with illnesses or those who know someone with serious heath conditions?  Do they attract?

When I was originally diagnosed with breast cancer in 1995, I unintentionally became the hub of all things health and cancer related.  At work, people told me stories of Aunt Matilda who died a horrible death from colon cancer that eventually invaded her brain.  Or a best friend who, after battling breast cancer for four years, died leaving behind her five year old triplets to be raised by their unemployed alcoholic father.

Why did I have to know about these people?  What was I to do with such information?  It seems when some people hear the word “cancer,” they do a brain search for that word and blurt out whatever story is in their head about the subject, no matter how horrifying.  And the person who patiently listens to the story (me) tries to figure out if she’s meant to comfort the story teller, ask more questions about the situation, or detail how my situation might be different than the tale’s protagonist.

Is it not enough to have to face the burden of one’s own illness, but also have to shoulder the burden of emotionally supporting another person’s loss or health scare?  Or to provide specifics about my own health issues to someone who has thus far ranked as a “say Hi in the hallways” friend up to this point?

What I’ve surmised is that some people just don’t think.  They don’t know what to say when they learn of a serious health condition of one of their friends, co-workers or family members.  So they think about themselves and their experiences with the disease or related disease.  They share War Stories.   This is similar to situations pregnant women who have to listen to jaw-dropping stories of 48 hour labors or babies born with severe challenges.

When I discovered I that my cancer had spread to my bones, one woman at work checked in on me daily, letting me know how her sore back was coming along.  She had the condition for months and kept the pain under control with yoga and Tylenol.  As she spoke, my internal dialog was active “I realize she’s hurting, but how does telling me about it do anything for her or for me?  Yes, she is having a hard time standing up straight, but the pain in my hip makes it nearly impossible for me to walk at all.  And this wig is really itchy.  I need some alone time.”  I had to look around my office to see if there was a hidden camera recording each encounter, which would be played on some future reality TV program.  Was she going to burst out laughing, pointing to the camera and say “Gotcha”?

There came a time when cancer treatment caused my immune system to crash and I needed to stay away from people.  So, during weekdays, I my office as a bunker, equipped with jumbo bottles of hand sanitizer.  I was lucky to have a job where I could use the phone and email to accomplish most of my objectives.  By this time, many more co-workers knew of my condition.  The in-person visits became phone calls and emails.  People asked what I needed.  I had to figure out what I needed.  Maybe I just needed to be alone?

I found this great article on the American Cancer Society’s website:  “When Someone You Know Has Cancer”

Another article “When Someone You Work With Has Cancer”

Both have outstanding tips, thoughtfully put together from those who have been through treatment for cancer and those who have supported them.

As I was working through my emotions on the subject of feeling like a health junkie dumping ground, I decided to take the high road.  The stories had to be told by the teller.  I could choose listen to them as a way to both help the other person and a way to understand that the other person was coping in the best way they could at the time.  I learned how to tactfully cut conversations short.  I learned that people wanted to help but didn’t know how.  So I developed ideas on how they could help:  send me funny cards in the mail; shoot me an email every once in awhile to tell me how they’re doing;, text me a humorous photo of something happening in their lives.

After all of this, I trained to become a breast cancer helpline volunteer and speak with those facing stage IV disease.  I’ve been able to share in the frustrations of other women feeling like they have become Illness Magnets in their workplaces or families.  And most importantly, I’ve given them some perspective on how they can broaden the conversation away from disaster stories to things that can actually help them get through the workday.

Yes, I’m still an Illness Magnet.  But, no, I don’t let every scrap of disease-related situations stick.