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Being Bald

Posted 1/13/2016

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  The very worst thing about having cancer is the existential threat, the reality that people can die from this disease. For many of us, the next worst thing, or, at least, one of the bad things, is the hair loss. Not all chemotherapy drugs cause baldness, but many, including the standard care for women receiving breast or ovarian cancer adjuvant treatment, do.

I have written before about ways to manage the process of hair loss. The quick summary is that, if you are taking drugs that will have this impact, it will happen between days 14 and 21 after the first chemotherapy infusion. About half of all people experience a tender/sore scalp (it does not feel like a headache; it feels like your whole head is bruised and is tender to the touch) a day or two before the hair starts to come out. If this happens, consider it the 24-48 hour warning and know that it will vanish once the hair does, too.

  There are three general strategies for this period: have your head shaved or buzzed at day about 12 so you take total control and avoid the falling hairs, wait until the hair starts to fall (and it will be very obvious) and then have the shave or buzz, or try to hold on to each strand as long as possible. If you opt for the third plan, it involves not washing your hair, combing or brushing as little as possible, and maybe wearing a soft cap at night, so you don't disturb it was much in your sleep.

  Today's theme, however, is not the falling out period, but the many months of being bald. I really hated it and spent the first few days feeling ridiculously ashamed. I am embarrassed to admit that, but it was more than ten years ago, so I have a little distance, and maybe it will help someone else who feels the same way. I remember going for ice cream with my family, wearing a scarf over my newly bald head, and hearing someone say: "Oh, look, she must have cancer." I have spent virtually my entire adult life in Cancer World, working with people who have cancer, and I had been through this before in 1993, and I was still devastated.

  I remember the woman who laughingly (although she knew it was painful, not funny) described yelping in shock each time she saw herself in the mirror. I remember a number of women who described their children lovingly stroking their bald heads and even inviting their friends to do the same--especially a nice image when the friends meant the whole high school football team. I remember women who tried to not look at themselves for as long as possible, always covering their heads before seeing a mirror. And I even remember one woman who claimed that her middle school age children never knew she had lost her hair because of her clever use of her wig.

  None of us like it, although a few women like their wigs better than their natural hair.

  Here is a delightful essay from "Better after Fifty" about this. I give you the start and a link:

What It’s Like To Be A Bald Woman 
by Ronna Benjamin 

Last Friday morning, on New Year’s Day, I got out of bed with just a trace of a hangover, ran my fingers through my hair, and took a bunch of strands with me to the bathroom. What a way to start 2016, right? 

It got worse from there—for the rest of the day Friday, then on Saturday and Sunday- whether I was at home, synagogue, at a funeral, out to dinner, or drying my newly polished toenails, everywhere I went, I left a trail of hair. More tempting than the ripest of scabs, I simply couldn’t stop picking. 

Mike and I hadn’t seen so much hair in the house (on pillows, blankets, fleece jackets, couches) since our last days with Sophie, our dear yellow lab. And as I shed, I remembered that Mike never really liked Sophie, and he absolutely abhored the fur all over the house. There was a slight chance, I thought, that Mike might want to put me down.


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