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Our Changing Hair

Posted 8/21/2014

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  Hair loss: how to "plan" for it (e.g. have your head shaved before it starts to fall out, try to save every strand as long as possible, etc.) is a shared trauma and a frequent topic of conversation in my office. Different women hate it to greater or lesser degrees, but everyone hates it--and everyone eventually adapts. Many women have threatened to never leave their homes once they are bald, and then, fairly quickly find themselves at work and at the market and the library wearing a hat.

  What is discussed less often is growing back hair. Slowly growing hair is surely not traumatic like losing it is, but it is often slow and shocking. The rule of thumb is that most, although not all, women feel able to go out "uncovered" about three months after a final chemotherapy treatment. Hair will be short indeed (try to think "European chic"), but one's scalp will likely be covered.

  The question is "covered with what"? Please excuse the analogy, but most women find that the first growth is white or gray, and that another darker growth gradually appears between and then over those pale strands. It is kind of like the double coat of some water-loving dogs. I can honestly reassure women that their hair probably won't stay as white as it first appears, but it is very possibly not going to be the color it was before all this began. Lots of women have been coloring their hair for years, and really have no idea what their natural color now is. Others had not needed or wanted color before, but find that the new hair is much grayer than what they had before. In addition to the color changes, the texture is frequently different (coarse to fine or vica versa or thicker or thinner) and most of the time, it is curly. The curls don't last forever, but mine at least lasted about three years, and I surely had hair very different from what I had before cancer.

  I remember looking in the mirror and thinking that I must have been enrolled in the Witness Protection Program. Another woman laughingly said that she shrieked whenever she saw her new-haired self in the mirror. Who was what?

  Enjoy this article:

Changing Looks Can Cause Cancer Patients Anxiety

By Melissa Dahl

Diane Mapes, a Seattle writer who also happens to be my friend and former

colleague, has a nice essay up at about her hair loss following treatment for breast cancer. To me, one of the most striking lines is near the
beginning:  “Passing” as my normal, healthy self was crucial for me; I didn’t want to deal with complicated headscarves, pink hats or pitying looks from strangers at the supermarket.

That idea — that cancer patients chafe at the idea of being immediately identifiable as a cancer patient — is something health psychologists are beginning to explore. Research has already shown that the changes in appearance after cancer treatment can lead to real psychological distress. And one study, published last year, found that about 80 percent of cancer patients — male or female — currently undergoing treatment were concerned over the way chemotherapy was changing their looks.

But how can health-care providers quell these sorts of fears? There aren’t a lot of answers yet, but at least health-care experts are starting to take the question seriously. For example, a team of British researchers published a qualitative study back in 2008, in which they interviewed 19 breast cancer patients at a cancer treatment center in the U.K.

Their voices echo Mapes’s point about “passing,” as many of them were reluctant to let their altered appearance mark them as a person with cancer:


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