'Crowning Glory', 'Barnet', 'Locks', 'Mane', Thatch', 'Tresses'...need I go on? Just a few words used to describe that stuff on top of our heads. Many people love it, some pay little attention to it. It's just there, taken for granted mostly.
I know from speaking to many others that the first thought that crosses many women's minds when they're told those fateful words “I'm sorry - it's cancer”, is often “Will I lose my hair?” I'm definitely not one of them...as I found out when I was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2014 at the age of 41. In fact, my initial reaction was to tell the surgeon to 'take whatever you need, just get rid of it'!
When I saw my oncologist for the first time, he did ask if I wanted to use a 'cold cap' during chemo – and I think he was very relieved when I replied with a definite no! Firstly, I wanted to be in hospital as little as possible, which ruled out the cold cap as you are there for a period of time before and after your chemotherapy. Secondly, I really didn't fancy the idea of sitting with basically a freezing cold hat on my head whilst being pumped full of poison. Now that is just me – I know of ladies who have successfully cold capped and am slightly in awe of their determination to keep their hair.
I have had the same hairstyle for about the last 20 years – if not longer. This was mostly due to laziness and the fact that I was a little bit scared to change it. It was much easier to keep what I had. In fact, I used to hide behind my fringe! So whilst the idea that I would lose my hair was a little strange to get used to, in a way I was curious as to what I'd look like.
The day before I started chemotherapy, I made a visit to the hairdressers. I'd left it to the last possible moment on the off chance that someone would ring me up and say that I'd get to keep my hair! I was her last client of the day and she locked the door so it was just the two of us in the salon. I'd already decided to donate my hair to the Little Princess Trust, who make wigs out of real hair for children with cancer and hair loss. I'd figured if it was coming out anyway someone may as well get some use out of it! So we sectioned and measured my hair to make sure it was all long enough to donate and I sat and watched in the mirror as my hair ended up in a style resembling a mullet!! What hair was left was cut into some semblance of (very short) style and gelled up! I had so many comments saying how the short hair suited me. I did go out and buy the biggest hoop earrings I could find...maybe that was my way of still feeling feminine? The lazy person inside of me loved the fact that it was so much quicker in the shower in the morning! Given the choice, I would probably still have the same long hair now that I used to, but that choice was taken away from me. I felt oddly released!
Day 15 after my first chemo...Christmas Day 2014. I noticed my hair was starting to come out. By the following day my head felt really uncomfortable – like I'd had a really tight ponytail. We were off out to our usual Boxing Day panto that afternoon so I asked my lovely husband to get the hair clippers out and he took my hair down to a Grade 1. My girls (aged 8 and 10 at that time) were fascinated. I think it helped that I didn't get upset. In fact, it was quite fascinating to see my head emerge from under all that hair! I have looked on the many changes to my body as an interested spectator – unable to change what was happening and curious to see what I would find underneath as all the layers were stripped off. As it was Christmas I wore a tinsel wig to the panto. I was waiting for comments, but the only person who even seemed to notice was a young child who thought it was quite cool that my hair was tinsel. Maybe everyone else thought I was just getting into the Christmas spirit?!
A couple of days later, fed up with finding stubble on my pillow and in my food I got my husband to shave my head. I was too nervous to do it. It was so very smooth afterwards that I couldn't stop stroking my head! Yes I know it's weird...but so is having no hair! I lathered on cocoa butter to keep it moisturised...my new version of brushing my hair!
The one thing that wasn't mentioned by any medical professionals is that it's not just the hair on your head that disappears. The whole lot goes. ALL of it! And it goes at different times. I thought I'd escaped losing my eyelashes and brows, but alas as my head hair started to regrow, my eyelashes and eyebrows did a disappearing act. And the nose hairs disappeared too. So if you ever see someone undergoing treatment constantly rubbing their eyes and wiping their nose it's probably not because they're upset. All these hairs are so under-appreciated. It's not until they've gone that you realise just how much they do for you!
I wasn't shy about my cancer – that included my baldness. I posted a photo on facebook as soon as I'd shaved the remnants off just so that I didn't have to see people's reactions to me having no hair. So many commented that I have a lovely shaped head and suited the bald look!! With encouragement from my friends from the Younger Breast Cancer Network, I even braved taking my hat off in the middle of a busy shop. Again, nobody made a comment or even seemed to pay the slightest bit of attention! Maybe there was something in my eyes daring people to comment?! It would seem that losing my hair gave me a bit of attitude...or maybe that was the cancer? Whatever it was, I never had a negative reaction. I'm lucky – I know some of my friends have had.
The obvious downside to losing your hair was that it suddenly felt chilly! I had handmade hats sent to me by people I didn't know at all. I also had a friend make me some gorgeous headscarves.
I had chosen a wig prior to starting chemo, but I never wore it. It wasn't down to the wig...in fact it was a lovely wig and looked very similar to my old hair. I just felt so self conscious in it, like I was trying to be someone I wasn't. So the wig sat looking at me from atop the chest of drawers in the bedroom. My husband has worn it for a laugh more than I have!! Having not worn it, I'm not entirely sure why I feel so reluctant to part with it? Maybe if I keep it the cancer won't come back? Maybe it's my good luck charm?! Silly superstition I know – but cancer is a disease of the mind as much as it is of the body.Now I have to admit that I did gain a bit of a scarf fetish. I had problems passing a shop without buying a new one. I learnt online how to tie them and had so many I could match my head to my outfit!! I even did an impromptu demonstration in scarf tying in a clothes shop one day when a lady asked how I tied my scarf as her friend was having chemo!
Chemotherapy is a really tough treatment. It takes so much out of you. Before I started I felt absolutely fine. It was the chemo that brought me to my knees...but I was determined to eradicate the cancer that may have been lurking in my body. Throughout it you are focused on the last one. I wanted to mark the occasion – a celebration if you like – and approached a photographer to take some photos of my baldy head before my hair starting growing back. Such was my fondness for my smooth scalp! It was the photographer who suggested the henna crown...what could I do but say yes! My hair had started to grow back but it was quite soft and fluffy. My husband thought I was a little crazy to shave it off again for the photo shoot, but it's not something you get the opportunity to do every day, and I knew the henna would look better without any hair. I am very proud of my photos. I look like a different version of me - my body changed quite considerably during treatment – but I can see me in them. And I can see a new improved version of me starting to develop.
(Photo credit: www.conniedoullphotography.co.uk)
I am now 6 months on from finishing chemo. Almost 4 months on from completing radiotherapy. And 8th October will be one year to the day when I had my diagnosis confirmed to me following biopsies on the lump I found in the shower and the enlarged lymph nodes the doctor felt. I am not 100% fit, but I am getting there.
I am now back to having to shave my legs and underarms. My eyelashes have returned to how they used to be, but my eyebrows are thinner. Other hair that used to be curly came back straight...temporarily! The hair on my head has come back curly and grey. Whilst I don't mind the grey, my hair is currently deep red...having already been purple! I'm not 100% happy with the new curls, but I'm not going to complain – I appreciate it growing back! I've even had my first haircut this year!!! My husband is an accomplished colourist! My children think I'm a cool Mum now!
Cancer has generally taught me that life is for living...grab opportunities and don't be afraid to try. I have lost some of my fears and insecurities. My hair is now my new plaything. I shall keep it short as I like it short. I shall keep colouring it because I have hair to colour. If the worst happens and it goes wrong, I can always shave it off and start again. I'm not scared now! Just as I am proud of my scars as they show what I have come through, I have come to realise that my hair doesn't define who I am.