‘Another visit from CZ the lymphoma nurse today – such a lovely lady. Apparently with this particular chemo hair loss is inevitable within about three weeks. I’ve laughed about how it’s in terrible condition anyway and joked to Al about wigs and bandannas but in truth I have no idea how I will cope with this massive test of my femininity…’ Wenna’s Diary Extract, 18th Jan 2012.
Pre – Chemo Hair Loss
Before losing my hair to chemo I was exactly the same as any other woman the world over – my relationship with my hair had been nothing if not complex over the years. I’d started life white blonde, a colour I spent much of my teens attempting to replicate without much success.
Before no hair day, my locks were my crowning glory, such a big part of my personality and how I chose to express myself. How I fitted in.
My hair has gone from bobbed to shoulder length, to closely cropped and grown out until it hung halfway down my back. I scrunched it with mousse and a diffuser in the 80s, scrunchied and wrapped it with thread in the 90’s and nearly cooked it in the noughties with my GHD straighteners.
I’ve been every shade of red from vibrant postbox to deep beetroot, had unfortunate beige and brown stripes like a tabby cat and suffered my way through a truly cringeworthy 6 months in my early teens, when my fringe took it upon itself to go curly, but the rest didn’t follow suit.
It wasn’t until my 20s that I accepted a few inescapable truths, the main being that it doesn’t matter how long you leave the f*cking bleach on, you will never look like the woman on the box. At this point I stopped trying and learned that, when it comes to being blonde, you have to put your hair in the hands of the professionals. Fortuitously, it was also around this time that I made the acquaintance of my friend H, when we were doing an evening course in Counselling at Truro College. By ‘we’ I refer to H (stylist turned finance), myself (lost in the world) and my roots (long and dark) which H informed me, ‘actually made her fingers twitch.’
This was the start of a long friendship between the two of us, born out of evenings eating pasta & pesto with my hair in foils, watching Mistresses boxsets and playing with Al. H became my stylist of choice and worked her magic on my tresses for many years to come.
My hair was where I found my beauty and thus my confidence. Long, blonde, shiny and thick. Yes I’m a bit of a fatty knacker and can’t wear the things I’d like, but at least my hair is good, I’d tell myself. At least I still draw admiring glances despite the size of my arse. At least I have something people can compliment.
‘You hide behind your hair,’ Mum used to tell me. And she was absolutely right. In a society where image is everything and our young women are bombarded by skinny role models and the implicit understanding that if you dare to be overweight, you are in fact a second class citizen, undeserving of love, respect or decent clothes; yes I did find reason to take refuge behind the blonde curtain.
But oh the grief I’ve given my hair… the times I cursed it for not doing what I wanted, the torture by hairdryer and highlighter cap, the strenuous efforts to make the curly straight, and vice versa. The times I loudly bemoaned my bad hair days, never thinking that one day it might not be there for me to hide behind. That one day, and many days after that would be, in fact, a no hair day. That I would experience chemo hair loss.
Preparing For Chemo Hair Loss
Chemo hair loss doesn’t happen overnight. For me, it was finding increasing amounts in the plughole and on my pillow each day. The run up to no hair day was seeing Dad try to hide his shock at the clumps on my shoulders after our lunchtime out, and watching Sketch make light of following me around the house with the vacuum cleaner. And then, on one memorable night, it was sitting in my bath towel and sobbing in Sketch’s arms, as swathes of it cascaded down my back.
Wenna – 3 Feb 2012 at 17:49 – Via Facebook
Just back from hospital to spend 3 precious days with my little family before going back in for more chemo… Hair now coming out in handfuls, time to go hat shopping 🙂
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‘Hair started coming out in properly large handfuls last night which caused me great upset, hidden behind a matter of fact FB update. We all knew it was going to happen, but somehow this doesn’t make the experience any easier. The chemo has turned it all dry and crispy, and three nights in hospital have given me a couple of large tangles – no idea how to deal, since putting the brush through just pulls more out. Sat on the bed and had a good cry plus big cuddle from Sketch who suggested I text H. Was pretty sure that it being the week end she would have made plans, but bless her heart she text straight back and said of course she would come.
It’s a strange sensation, chemo hair loss. It doesn’t hurt as such, but my whole scalp is tingling and stinging, the way it does when you take your hair down after having it in a tight pony tail all day. Am going to have to wash it before H comes, but still too afraid to tackle the tangles. She says we can cut around them…’ Wenna’s Diary Extract, 4th Feb 2012
True to her word, H arrived the next day with her magic scissors and cut my hair in to a bob. Obviously this was only ever going to be a temporary measure, but approaching chemo hair loss in stages felt easier somehow. It also gave us the opportunity to get dressed up and take my hair out for one last family lunch. I look back now and smile at the reverence with which we treated the situation, in stark contrast to subsequent occasions, when chemo denuding my scalp became just another day in the life of lymphoma.
Taking Charge Of Chemo Hair Loss
It was a week later that it occurred to me exactly how to turn the situation to my advantage. As anyone in the position will tell you, there is nothing quite so dis-empowering as severe illness. Especially cancer. There are just so many unknowns, so I decided that going bald was not going to be one of them. I refused to become the chemo version of the guy who clings to his last remaining hairs in order to comb them over the bald spot. Cancer may well have been robbing me of my hair, but was I going to sit around waiting for that to happen? Was I f*ck!
‘It was only ever going to be H who shaved it off. Quite simply, I couldn’t imagine anyone else being there at such an occasion. I asked her to clipper it straight up the middle so I couldn’t back out halfway through. She did me proud, in quiet dignity. There were nearly tears when H pointed out there was over 7 years worth of friendship on that head, but I kept smiling which kept H smiling too. My head feels so light. ‘ Wenna’s Diary Extract, 10th feb 2012.
Text to Dad from Sketch. Fri 10th Feb 2012, 14:45 pm
‘Wenna has just had her hair shaved and is still smiling! She’s an amazing person, so strong and in control.’
Text to Dad from Wenna. Sat 11th Feb 2012, 8:45 am
‘Al a bit tearful over Disco* but mostly concerned that he never has to see my bald head. PJ resolutely refuses to smile at me unless my scalp is covered, so have taken to wearing my new woolly hat at all times, even in bed. Good job it doesn’t itch, as for the sake of family harmony it looks like being quite a permanent fixture! X’
*They say it never rains but it pours – Disco, the beautiful but brainless family cat had departed this life after drinking anti-freeze that same day.
Getting Used To No Hair Day
The first time you lose your hair to chemo is a big deal. It’s like a slap in the face at what is already the worst time of your life. It’s a stark and relentlessly visual reminder of what lies beneath.
My second experience of chemo hair loss was far less emotional. Just another check in on the road already travelled. So by the third time? I was fed up with the sting in my scalp wherever it touched the pillow and took matters, quite literally into my own hands.
‘It was a bizarre scene that played out in the mirror. Me, with a no nonsense expression, grimly determined to stop my head from hurting as I yanked out chunk after chunk of my own hair in the bathroom. The relief was instant and my scalp is much smoother for not using the clippers. Nurse C remarked upon how brave I am, but I genuinely don’t see it that way. Ripping my hair out is simply one more on the list of necessary evils… ‘ Wenna’s Diary Extract, 8th July 2013.
Styling Out chemo hair loss
I ended up wasting a lot of money on wigs I so rarely wore. Yes, there were occasions when it was nice to have hair, but the scalp itch and hot flushes just weren’t worth the bother. There was also the fact that however I styled it, my hair pieces always ended up at a ‘jaunty’ (read bizarre) angle, not to mention the ever present threat of an errant gust of wind…
Allow me to demonstrate exactly what I was up against, via the following photo. Pre no hair day (and steroid moon face) I wouldn’t even have countenanced showing such a hideous photo, but cancer is funny like that. Face up to your own mortality and, trust me, the size of that face (and it’s surrounding features) become pretty much irrelevant…
It was Big Sis who came to my rescue by introducing me to some beautiful cotton tubular hats from Seasalt which could be knotted at the end (ideal for when I was shedding) or left open to give the bonce an airing, in an unobtrusive fashion. I was also given a fabulous wide brimmed purple hat by BC which was perfect for hiding under. Sadly it disappeared one day, never to be seen again. I like to think of that hat as the littlest hobo of millinery, imagining it to have moved on to somebody else’s bald head, in their hour of need.
I have a very clear memory of walking through a crowd one day (it had to be so very public of course) rocking the purple hat of dreams. The afore mentioned gust of wind whipped the hat off my naked scalp and exposed my ‘shining dome of glory’ to the world. There was an audible gasp from my family and nobody really knew what to do. In that moment I’m not sure I did either. So what else was there to do really, but fall back on the old adage: ‘if in doubt, style it out.’ I believe I laughed. It was fake at first, but soon became genuine, helped along by my eldest galavanting up the road after the hat which stayed tantalisingly out of his grasp. Sometimes the universe takes it upon itself to rip the piss out of you, and you just have to go with the flow.
And so ends the story of the no hair day. It grew back and fell out and grew back and fell out and grew back. And I spent a good fornight masquerading as a dandelion clock… but that is another post for another day.
How have you coped with chemo hair loss? Perhaps no hair day is fast approaching and you have a few nifty tricks in hand. Maybe you are styling it out as I write. Any hair hacks you feel like sharing, drop me a comment below. Whatever your story I’d love to hear from you.
This post is dedicated to all of the bald bonces out there – brave, beautiful and batlling. To quote my Dad, via the immortal words of Sir Winston Churchill ‘Keep Buggering On!’