Hair loss can be one of the most devastating side effects of chemotherapy. That being said, I felt like my hair loss was easier for me than it was for everyone around me. Don’t get me wrong, I was very attached to my long, thick hair (pun intended). But I knew hair loss was a part of chemotherapy, and as far as I was concerned, it was a reasonable trade for saving my life.
The day my hair started falling out by the handful was… interesting. I very quickly decided I didn’t have the energy to clean up clumps of hair from the floor. Nor did I have the energy to try to brush through endless tangles as my hair fell out. It was time to shave my head.
Despite having lost what seemed like a mountain of hair, I still had a thick braid. I decided to try to donate what was left of my hair. I had donated my hair many times over the years to help make wigs for kids experiencing medical hair loss. The challenge this time was getting it into a clean, dry braid.
I took a shower, dried my hair, and attempted to brush through the knots. Oh. My. Goodness. Piles of hair surrounded me on the floor. The hair that was still attached to my head seemed to grab hold of the falling hair creating vast tangles that were stronger than some climbing knots I’ve seen. It was three days after my second Adriamycin/Cytoxan infusion and I was exhausted. I had no energy for fighting with my hair, but I persevered and wrestled the remaining hair into a braid. With a pair of scissors, I hacked the braid off in a savage frenzy of irritation.
Later that day, Vicki, my chemo angel, came over to shave my head. When I answered the door, handkerchief barely concealing the wreckage of my morning’s activities, she smiled and said “What happened here?” with a wave of her hand encompassing my hair’s current state. We both laughed as I told her about my struggles and revealed the damage. We went out to the back porch and had fun pulling some more of my hair out.
Eventually, we got down to the business of shaving my head. I didn’t want to lose my hair, but shaving my head gave me a tiny bit of power at a time when everything else felt out of control. It was a warm spring day, and I sat on the back porch completely bald for the first time since infancy. Honestly, from the front it was kind of cute, in a minimalist sort of way. Then I saw the back, and it was a completely different story. Who knew my head was so lumpy?
Seriously though, until I lost my hair, it was easy for my loved ones to pretend that I was still healthy. They knew I was going through treatments, but I didn’t look sick. The first time they saw me with no hair, it hit them hard. I looked like a cancer patient. Not long after I shaved my head, my eyebrows and eyelashes started to fall out. My daughter and I played a game called “count the eyelashes” every day until I had no more. Shaving my head could have been a style choice, but my lack of eyebrows and eyelashes seemed to scream “cancer patient!”
Going through months of chemotherapy, I often forgot my lack of hair. I was always looking out at the world, and rarely thought about it. But every once in a while, I would catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror or window, and I would see what other people saw. I realized that it wasn’t about hair, it was about fear. I looked ill, and they were afraid for me.
Some cancer patients can avoid complete hair loss. Scalp cooling systems (also called cold caps) can be used during chemotherapy to minimize or even prevent hair loss. This wasn’t an option for me because of the tendency for Triple Negative Breast Cancer to spread to the brain. My oncologists told me they wanted the chemotherapy to bathe my brain and all of the surrounding tissues. However, a friend who was fighting Triple Positive Breast Cancer used the Penguin Cold Caps to fabulous effect. She maintained a full head of hair throughout her treatment.
Nobody wants to lose their hair, but if given a choice between hair and life, I would choose life every single time. It’s worth it!