This is a recurring topic of interest: managing hair loss from cancer treatment. There are several ways that treatment causes this problem: chemotherapy, radiation to the head (e.g. to the brain), surgery on the head (e.g. brain), and hormonal treatments. Chemotherapy related hair loss is what we usually think about and is surely the most common and very distressing. Radiation causes hair loss only to the radiation field, so generally this is not a big problem. If, however, you receive brain radiation, it is very likely that hair will not regrow in the targeted field. This can result in very patchy hair growth and many women end up wearing wigs or hats or scarves forever more. I included surgery, which would only mean shaving an area of the head before the operation, and hormonal treatments which don't cause total baldness but can result in thinning hair.
I am writing about this today because of several recent and enjoyable articles, coming at this from different perspectives. Here are links to enjoy:
Hair, Interrupted: One Woman Faces Hair Loss After Chemo—and Discovers the Beauty of
Standing Out in a Crowd
by Suleika Jaouad •
For as long as I can remember I’ve felt like an outsider looking in. Between the ages of four and eighteen, I attended six schools on three continents. As the child of two immigrants—my mother is Swiss and my father is Tunisian—I discovered that my multicultural background was anything but “cool” or “exotic” to my classmates. Roll call on the first day of school was like showing up to class
wearing underwear on the outside of my jeans. With a name as unpronounceable as Suleika Jaouad, I found it hard to blend in.Sometimes that made me want to blend in all the more.
Even my lunch box was a source of embarrassment. All I wanted back then was a brown paper bag filled with typical, all American fare:peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Snackables, Pop Tarts, and Gushers. Was that too much to ask for? I remember bursting through the door after school in a huff one day. “Never, ever pack me chicken tagine for lunch again,” I said. The contrast between the smelly, coagulated orange mess of chicken and the pristine, odorless beauty of a PopTart had never felt sharper.
Over time, the embarrassment of being the perpetual new kid hardened into resentment. I resented that my family had a French-only language policy at home. I resented that I had a multisyllabic name and that I was too young to legally change it to something more normal like Ashley or Jessica. And I resented that my mother, an artist with a flair for the eccentric and a sturdy sense of who she was and what she believed, seemed to think it was so easy to be comfortable with not always fitting in. “You are unique,” she would tell me, forgetting that the word is a social albatross when you’re a kid. I was mortified the day she came to pick me up at the bus stop wearing cross-country skis, a fluorescent-yellow parka, and a backward baseball cap covering her spiky two inch-long hairdo. Quelle horreur!
When I got to middle school and my family settled in upstate New York, I dreamed of having golden, waist-length Rapunzel-like tresses—like the popular girls on the cheerleading squad—instead of my frizzy, shoulder-length auburn hair. I tried everything. They knew me in the hair product aisle at the local CVS pharmacy, but no amount of roasting my hair with Sun-In or dousing it in Long ‘N Strong could make me look like them. In the sixth grade, I even persuaded my mother to let me get a braided blond weave (hello,
No Hair, Don’t Care: How Cancer, Chemo, and One Epic Buzz Cut Conspired for a
Bold New Look
by Julia Felsenthal •
I’m sure I would feel differently if I had great hair. Trademark hair. Botticelli curls or Pantene Pro-V hair. I don’t. What I’ve got is ordinary, except for the ways in which it is kind of bad. My hair is dully brown, somehow both greasy and dry, fine as a baby’s. It’s straight and lifeless, except where it cowlicks, and tangles and generally misbehaves.
Perhaps you can understand why losing it was not the tragedy I was warned it would be?
When you are diagnosed with cancer, you meet with many oncologists. They are almost all men. They do not talk to you about how sick chemotherapy will make you feel, about anxiety, depression, or doom. They talk about hair loss. It’ll take you awhile to come around to the idea of it, I am told matter-of-factly by one early contender, a George W. Bush doppelgänger. It’s harder for women.
I move on to other doctors, ones with less Republican faces and better bedside manners. They all want to discuss my hair. Even if you can’t imagine wanting one, get a wig. Get one even if you only wear it one day of your whole treatment. Go now, it may take a long time to find the right one. Don’t go alone. Take your mom, take your sister, take your best friend. Take your boyfriend. Make a date of it. Take a picture of someone whose hair you’ve always wanted. Take a picture of your own hair on a day you liked how it looked. You can’t imagine how this is going to feel. Get two wigs! One for fun and one for real. Go while you
still have the energy to fight with your insurance company about how many wigs you have the right to get.
I find a doctor I would follow off the edge of a cliff. Even if you don’t want a wig wig, he says while the first round of chemotherapy drips into my veins, you may want to get a winter hat with a ponytail attached to the back of it, so you can run out to the store without attracting any attention. He is not joking, but my boyfriend Jake and I laugh about this for months. I try to imagine such a contraption. Would I keep it hanging on a hook by the door, a sad little Davy Crockett cap to slip on and face the world?
And finally this from Gail:
Also received an email in my in box from Vogue magazine with a short story including great photos and a short video on women who have lost their hair (mostly to chemo). They are gorgeous. Enjoy!