I finished my chemotherapy two weeks ago. I have been really lucky during the treatment – no nausea, only a little constipation and just minimal disruption to my overall enjoyment of life. I had annoying sensations in my feet which made walking a bit uncomfortable, my energy levels sometimes plummeted alarmingly, and ‘ chemo brain’ caused some confusion and considerable amusement, but the side effect that makes me want to blog, is the hair loss and attitudes to it.
My head hair stated to come out very soon into my first chemo cycle and before the end of the third week I had had my head shaved to avoid chunks of hair falling into my food and all over my clothes. A wig was fitted a few days later but I took an instant and absolute dislike to wearing it. Don’t get me wrong, it was very close in colour and style to the way my own hair often was, and looked very natural, but it just felt wrong or to put it another way, just didn’t feel right.
Maybe putting it on was emphasising what had been lost – I don’t know, it wasn’t logical because I’ve worn wigs on stage with no problem. In fact, in my 20s, I first decided to have my very long hair cut as a result of wearing a short-styled wig. I have no recollection who suggested I try it, but I know I wore it on a summer holiday and liked it so much I bit the bullet and had my long plait cut off. So it wasn’t wearing the wig per se, it was something to do with the wearing of it being like a denial of what was happening . I just couldn’t bear to wear it, felt really stressed by it. I thought maybe it was the amount of hair involved, so I took it to my hairdresser who thinned it and trimmed it to a shorter style. That was better, but it and I were still not friends . Later on I bought a cheapo very short wig from the internet and felt better wearing that because it wasn’t pretending to be my real hair. I wore it more than the first one but still was not happy.
The journey part 1
For normal every day activity, when outdoors I wore a trilby hat over a beanie at first because it was so cold, but I would have no problems taking them off in shops etc., and felt perfectly comfortable with my baldness at home. I would have loved a henna tattoo on my scalp but I have some mole-type growths getting in the way, so thought it was best not to go down that route. However, I used lipstick and eye-liner to draw cherries using said moley-things as a base. Just having a bit of fun with the situation.
What’s the point of all this? Well, almost all the literature I read, and the verbal advice I received, referred to pretty scarves & turbans, hats, wigs, false eyebrows, lashes, even a fringe on a headband for goodness sake. I have since read bits about living with the hair loss which included being bareheaded, but at the time I saw nothing to encourage me to stay bald. Nothing to suggest that it would to be just as okay not to adopt the falsies as to do so. Maybe I am mistaken, but I feel I have had to discover this for myself.
My partner and a couple of good friends have commented that many folk would be horrified at the thought of losing their hair and need much support and advice about replacements, and lots of cancer-support literature stresses that aspect. However, I wonder how much of that horror and fear is due to the public perception/non-acceptance of a woman without hair. Shaving a woman’s head has after all historically been the ultimate humiliation. Perhaps it is this public attitude and perception that has to be challenged.
I feel it is really important that folk like me should be encouraged to be proud of what a young waiter I met called “your survivor haircut”. It is vital for changing public perception of what is after all, a very common condition, lots of folk develop cancer. Not all cancers require chemotherapy, (I had breast cancer in 2007 with only lumpectomy and radiotherapy), and not all chemo regimes entail hair loss, but enough do to make it essential to tackle the issue instead of hiding it. It was once almost taboo to mention what some folk still refer to coyly as “the C Word” and the diagnosis was greeted with fear and despair. It simply does not need to be like that, and the more that folk having the treatment show the world at large that is not something to hide or be afraid of, let alone ashamed about, the better it will be for us all.
During my chemo sessions I chatted to a lot of other women having treatment and found without exception that they all disliked the false hair and, even though most of them still did wear them, they all did so for others’ benefits, not their own. These patients thought that other folk, be they family, friends, workmates, neighbours or just strangers, felt easier if the baldness was disguised in some way – probably because they did not want to know, or be reminded, that the person was being treated for cancer. It might sound quite pretentious but I’d go so far as to say wearing wigs and the like made me feel as though I was denying my present existence, at that for my own well-being I needed to have the strength to cope with what was happening to my body, not hide from it.
As well as making me feel emotional discomforted, the wigs were physically uncomfortable and made my scalp itch, so I didn’t wear them often at all, but I still succumbed for attending first round drama festivals in February and going to the cinema or for a meal. I wanted above all to avoid anybody thinking that I was attention-seeking and “advertising the cancer” (as a friend once innocently said, and which kinda cut me to the core, though I know she meant no criticism).
I had stopped wearing the trilby and beanie, relying instead on the hood of my coat to protect my head when outdoors, and was bareheaded in shops and for meetings. Then, eventually, I decided that was it – no more shilly-shallying! I abandoned the wigs entirely and attended later drama festivals sans hair. The liberation was wonderful and I have never regretted it for a nano second. I actually felt free at long last.
The journey part 2
Losing my eyebrows and lashes was a bit more disturbing because it really does change one’s appearance, but even that really wasn’t that bad. I’ve always liked eye make-up but for a time my eyelids were very swollen, making that infeasible, but again that didn’t last long, and not having lashes didn’t really make much difference – probably because I wear glasses. I was back to using the eye-liner quite soon, though the spontaneous flooding that still occurs with my eyes, often destroys my efforts.
As with all of us, it’s ok when I am made-up, but at other times – wow, the change in me is so marked. I believe I look as though I have aged five years in six months and am very aware of “old lady skin” on my hands and arms and other examples of my being in my seventieth year, possibly because I actually have had accelerated aging as a result of the treatment, or maybe it’s simply because of such a vast change in the way I look with the bald head and bare face.
I have a wee white fuzz on my head now as my hair starts to return, and my eyebrows are growing back. So are lashes, but more slowly. I might have to resort to wearing a wig in August when I appear in a show on The Fringe, if my hair isn’t long enough to look acceptable with a Victorian costume, but I won’t mind that because it’ll be for a totally different purpose. Pretending to be a character in a play is different to pretending my body is not undergoing vast changes.
It has been a long journey and along the way I’ve had to learn a lot about perception of self and how we present ourselves to the world . I appreciate that it is important to be considerate of others’ feelings but sometimes one’s own must take priority for one’s own sanity.
Re: the blog and collage heading – “Cancer Capillos Damnum Iter” – that is what Google translate has given me as Latin for “A Cancer Hair-loss Journey”. Don’t ask why I wanted to use cod-Latin – it just seemed like good idea at the time.
Finally, my journey would have been a very difficult one without the wonderful support of my partner and our friends, both ‘real life’ and ‘virtual’ on Facebook. I didn’t need counselling – just my pals. Enjoy life- it’s not a rehearsal.