One of the most devastating parts of a breast cancer diagnosis for a lot of women is finding out you’re going to lose your hair.
It shouldn’t be because this is one of the more temporary parts of your treatment. Your hair will grow back. Your breast won’t.
And yet, it is probably the bit we focus on most. I guess it’s because for many women, our hair is a large part of our identity and femininity.
It’s one of the main ways we describe ourselves and others: ‘She has long, dark, curly hair, about five foot tall …’
We describe hair as ‘our crowning glory’ and we have often spent thousands of hours and dollars colouring, styling and cutting it over the years.
And then we’re told we are going to lose our hair. Not all chemotherapies will take your hair away, but most of the ones that women get as part of an initial breast cancer diagnosis will lead to hair loss. I think this is because they hit you with the strongest chemotherapy they can, with the idea being that you get hit hard the first time around so there doesn’t need to be a second time around.
While one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime, almost 90 per cent of women will move on and become disease-free after treatment. This is a pretty impressive statistic, but there is still hope that one day we can reach 100 per cent and breast cancer will just be another chronic disease rather than a deadly disease for the 10 per cent of women whose cancer returns.
But let’s get back to the important stuff: hair. We are very attached to our hair and losing it makes a cancer diagnosis very real. There’s a lot of ways to hide what you are going through, but when your hair comes out, it makes it more difficult to pretend that this isn’t happening.
It signals to you and to others that you are different, you are sick. Having no hair on your head and particularly no eyebrows and eyelashes makes you look sick. This is what someone with cancer looks like, you think to yourself as you look at yourself in the mirror.
There are, of course, things you can do to try to prevent hair loss from chemo and also to cover up your hair loss.
Some hospitals offer ‘cold cap’ treatments and I have seen some women have success with these. There’s no guarantee they will work, but for many women, it can slow the hair loss. They might lose some hair, but keep enough that it is not noticeable to others that their hair has been a bit thinned by chemo.
Using a cold cap means that your chemotherapy treatment goes for longer because you need to put the cap on for at least an hour before they start giving you the intravenous chemotherapy and leave the cap on for an hour afterwards. It is also a ‘cold cap’, which means it is very cold on your head and you can get an ice cream headache from wearing it. Some women can handle this well, while others find the experience too unpleasant to continue.
You can also get a wig to hide your hair loss and there are a lot of different ones out there to try. You can go for a whole new look or try to find one that matches closely to your current hair. The cost can range quite widely depending on whether you go for an artificial hair wig or real hair, and your private health insurance might cover some of this cost. Artificial hair wigs are much easier to care for and style, while real hair wigs take almost as much, if not more, time to wash and style as your real hair. There’s also a plethora of headscarves, hats and head coverings out there to use while you have no hair.
If you have been diagnosed with cancer, I would highly recommend attending a ‘Look Good, Feel Better’ workshop. Most hospitals offer these workshops where you can learn more about coping with hair loss and also get some make-up tips to help with changes in your skin and eyebrow and eyelash loss. You can take a friend with you and you get to meet other women going through similar treatment as you. You also get a free goodie bag of make-up products, and who doesn’t love something for free?
When I was diagnosed, I had long hair that went three-quarters of the way down my back. I cut it back into a shorter bob in preparation for losing my hair, with a determined hope that I might be one of those anomalies who doesn’t lose their hair to chemo. I wasn’t.
My breast care nurse told me that most women began losing their hair 17-18 days after their first AC chemo treatment. On day 15, my scalp began to get a bit tingly and like clockwork, on day 17 when I washed my hair, big chunks began to fall out in the shower.
However, I had begun to lose hair in other areas before I lost the hair on my head. My hair, um, ‘downstairs’ came out first, as well as the hair on my legs. I’m not sure if this is because these are the areas that have been my focus of hair removal through shaving, waxing and laser hair removal for the past 30 years, but that’s where the hair went first. It’s the most successful hair removal treatment I’ve ever had.
The hair on my head first came out along where my hair parted and the hair loss was more focused on the top of my head, which gave it a lovely clown/Franciscan monk effect. It was very unattractive so I bit the bullet and got it all shaved off rather than watch it fall out piecemeal around the house.
I had already bought and been fitted with a wig to use once my hair fell out. ‘Cody’, the product name of my wig, and I have a complicated relationship. We were really close at first and I used her every day for work, but eventually she annoyed me and I started to use her less. I would gratefully take her off as soon as I walked in the door at home, but then I began taking her off in the car as soon as I left work as she began to annoy me more and more.
Cody has been in a box for months and months now. I could wear her, but I don’t really care any more who sees my bald noggin. Maybe I should care more? I did just wear her a couple of times recently because I was trying to blend in a little more. I was wearing my eye patch at the same time so I thought Cody might help make that less noticeable!
I overheard my Dad speaking to a friend the other day saying how I’d gone out with my bald head and eyepatch to meet a friend over the weekend and thought to myself, ‘yeah, that’s something I probably wouldn’t have done two years ago’. I had felt really good going out on the weekend, wearing a new dress. I hadn’t put any make-up on because my double vision is making that a bit challenging at the moment, but I didn’t really think about the hair and trying to cover up the fact I don’t have any.
Maybe it’s just what I need to do at the moment – it’s a signal to the world that I’m not 100 per cent well and maybe I need some special treatment. For example, as I gingerly made my way on to the bus on the weekend with my eyepatch and bald head, the bus driver actually waited until I sat down before taking off from the bus stop. First time ever. She also made sure I made it safely to my destination. Then as I walked through Fortitude Valley, people gave me room on the footpath so I could safely negotiate my way with my one good eye. If it makes my life easier for the moment, I’ll put up with looking like a bit of a freak.
I remember when my hair grew back and I was still getting treatment, I was almost resentful that the physical signs had disappeared. When I had no hair, people were quick to give up their seat on the train and make room for me. Once my hair came back in, I still felt just as physically tired that I would appreciate a seat on the train, but people couldn’t see I was sick so the offers didn’t come. It was a weird feeling after so many months of wanting to blend in and not be treated specially. Now I wasn’t getting special treatment and I resented it!
Hair loss is just a temporary side effect of this. It will grow back, though it may grow back a little different at first. Mine came back very dark and curly, but I think it was beginning to get back to its original texture before I lost it again.
So let me leave you with the upside of losing your hair – the things you can look forward to if you have to go down this path. You will get through it. It will grow back. It won’t be the end of the world. Life is too short to worry about hair.