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 (hatsscarvesandmore.com) 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.