I had my first chemotherapy on December 6th, 2018.
I knew that the most likely first side effect from the chemo would be the very visible loss of my hair.
A week after the first chemo, I was stunned to discover that the fleece tops I wear for warmth during the winter were covered with long grey hairs. Yikes!
I knew it was going to happen, but I guess I didn't expect it to happen quite that fast.
I'd done my research ahead of time and I knew there were basically four options:
- Buy a wig that was as close to my actual hair as possible.
- Buy one or more wigs in any style and colour I wanted.
- Go bald.
- Get some kind of temporary headwear - hats, scarves, etc.
I knew that my hair would likely (hopefully?) start growing back in shortly after the chemo ended, and since I had no plans to do any speaking or be in the public during the chemo, I saw no need for an expensive wig.
My mother wore relatively inexpensive wigs for years when she was older, and they really did look good on her, but I'd tried them on and I knew having a wig on my head all the time would drive me crazy.
A friend had loaned me a few caps she'd used; however, she'd needed them during the summer and they weren't particularly warm. Since I'm always cold anyway, I needed warmth!
As for just going bald, if it had been summer, I might have done that, but definitely not in the winter!
Since I didn't own any scarves that would work, and I had no idea where to go to buy some (and no energy to do so), I ordered a couple of caps from Amazon that said they were for chemo patients.
I was supposed to have my second chemo session on December 20th, but after seeing the results of my bloodwork, my oncologist decided to wait another week. Which was fine with me!
I was booked for December 26th, which meant I'd be much more likely to enjoy Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with our family.
Meanwhile, my hair was still coming out.
I cut a couple of inches off.
A few days later, I cut about about four more inches off.
On Christmas Eve morning, with our family coming over, I cut off a bunch more.
I was hoping no one would notice my hair loss because I hadn't wanted to bring attention to me. I just wanted things to be normal for the kids.
But I'm not sure it worked.
This photo was taken on Christmas Eve - not quite 3 weeks after the first chemo.
So on Christmas morning, before we went to our oldest son's home to open gifts, I bit the bullet and used an electric razor to shave off the rest.
My ever-helpful husband told me I had a nicely-shaped head for being bald and I should go with it.
I said, "Thank you, but my head is freezing!"
A small plain navy cap had arrived from Amazon just before Christmas, so I wore that. I don't recall that anyone, even our youngest grandkids, commented on it.
(By the way, I'm holding a sloth my oldest granddaughter bought to keep me company during the chemo and radiation. It's still in my bedroom.)
I had my second chemo treatment the next day. Our third son's wife had bought three beautiful silk scarves for me for Christmas. I found a Youtube video and managed to get one of scarves tied on so it would stay, and I wore it. That scarf got so many compliments from the nurses!
Below, you can see all the caps I ended up with. A few were for sleeping (had to keep my head warm, remember?), the rest were for day wear, and the silk scarves were for "good." I even found a plain cap with a place to add a scarf!
The best cap for sleeping at night (because it didn't come off easily) was one I was given later at a "Look Good, Feel Better" event that was held at the hospital. What made it stay on was the strip of elastic at the back. There's no label, so I wondered if it was made by someone from the organization.
A note about the program, Look Good, Feel Better.
The workshop I attended was held at a room in the cancer treatment area of our local hospital. As far as I know, the women leading it were all or mostly volunteers. They talked about things like what to expect after breast cancer surgery: hair loss, wigs, skin problems, depression, and so forth.
I found out about it a couple of months after starting the chemo. It would have been better to attend before the chemo started, but I only found out about it because another cancer patient mentioned it to me. Turned out there were brochures in the chemo waiting room, but I hadn't noticed them. When I asked my oncologist if he'd heard of the organization, he hadn't. But he did get his receptionist to get some brochures to put out at his office.
In many ways, I wasn't their target audience because I really don't wear make-up and wasn't all that bothered by the hair loss (as long as my head was warm!)
But they did talk about a variety of things such as skin care during and after chemo treatment, and how looking good would make you feel better. There was a kit for each woman with brand new make-up suited to her skin type. And each cancer patient got a make-over using the new make-up.
Being me, I mostly felt guilty because opening the make-up and using it on me meant that I would likely have to throw it out because I rarely ever use make-up unless I'm on TV, speaking, or getting my picture taken. I do use a face cream morning and night but other than that, a bit of blush and powder is pretty well it and I already had my favourites. I did use the eyebrow pencil because eyebrows, being made of hair, also disappear.
Anyway, I enjoyed the evening, and had some questions answered. Plus I got the great night cap!
Also, you get to take a person with you, so I took along the daughter-in-law who had bought me the scarves, and she enjoyed it.
Of course, this isn't all the organization does; just my limited experience. Look Good, Feel Better is actually 30 years old and world-wide.
If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with cancer, I'd encourage you to find out if there's a workshop in your area.
As for my hair, after the last chemo in late March, it slowly began to grow back.
How Do I Feel About Losing My Hair?
Even for a short time, losing it was a strange experience. But not necessarily a bad one.
The truth is, my hair has always been a bit of a stress point for me. Growing up, my hair was a point of contention between my mother and me. As I've written here, she had very fine, straight hair. She got perms and went to the hairdresser to have it "done," at least every other week, if not every week. My hair was nothing like hers. It was thick and it was always getting tangled. So she kept my hair short, and as I got older, always managed to convince me to keep it short. I didn't grow it long until after I'd graduated from university, and then whenever I washed it, I spent an hour under a hair dryer with my hair in huge rollers to keep it more or less straight. I was 50 when I discovered that I actually had curly hair and learned how to care for it properly.
My mother lived to be almost 90. One of the last things she said to me was, "Are you sure you don't want to cut your hair? It looks so much nicer short."
So when my hair was suddenly gone, I sort of felt that I was losing, not just my hair, but my beautiful curly hair. And I had no idea what it would look like if it did grow back in.
It took three years for my hair to get to the length it had been pre-chemo. As you can see by the last picture, today, four years after my breast cancer surgery, it pretty well looks the same as it used to. I stepped outside and took the last picture just now. No make-up. Washed it this morning with products for curly hair, wrapped it in a towel for a while and then did a bit of a blow-dry, and there it is. Happy as can be. As am I.
But even if it hadn't grown back, or if it had grown back patchy or straight, in the end, it's just hair. Yes, it's very noticeable. But it changes as we grow and it doesn't define us. I didn't feel any less of a person when I was bald, or when I wearing caps and scarves. Who I truly am is who I am inside my head; not what people see on the outside.
Sometimes I think I might have been a different person if my mother had let me have long hair when I was a teenager, the way my uber-confident older granddaughters did; the way my intense youngest granddaughter no doubt will. And then I wonder if that would have been a good thing. Because I'm actually quite happy with the person I am.
While I wouldn't go so far as to say I'm happy about it, in the long run I'm not sad about losing my hair because it made me aware of things I might not have understood before. And I wouldn't have experienced the pleasure of having my hair return to me.
But the hair loss was only the beginning and the most obvious of the side effects of my chemotherapy. The rest, most of which were (and still are) invisible to others, would turn out to be a lot more problematic.