Although I joked about losing my hair from the beginning of this cancer encounter, for some reason I thought it would not happen to me. I knew that the side effects of chemo were very well-managed these days and perhaps I latched onto that and believed that somehow I would be lucky and keep my greying locks.
The first brush (no pun intended 😉 ) with reality came with the first chemo session. The oncology nurse went through the side effects with me and said that the most common one was hair loss. Gulp!
The next moment of truth came a few days later when I met up with another woman who has breast cancer. We were working out how to identify one another – I said that I would be wearing a bright scarf to hide my new lopsided shape. She said that she would be wearing a hat to hide the fact that she’d lost her hair. Big gulp! It began to really feel possible that my hair could also go.
Looking at various breast cancer sites and particularly a discussion forum, it slowly sank in that unless you wear a kind of “cold cap” during chemo (only available in some oncology treatment centres), then your hair will almost certainly fall.
I also learned that hair fall usually started between 1 to 2 weeks following chemo. Great! Exactly the time my son R was due to visit.
I developed a new and irritating habit of running my fingers through my hair, and then examining my hand for loose hair – and there were always a few. Towards the end of the second week, the hair fall was certainly increasing, but was annoying rather than visibly obvious.
As I entered the third week I knew that I needed a pre-emptive strike. On the Monday we tried a number of hair dressers as I had decided to get my hair cropped short. For some reason, none would cut hair that day. Perhaps it was inauspicious. After all, in Myanmar there are specific days when you should and should not cut or wash your hair. We tried again on the Tuesday, and this time the hairdressers were willing. I had reached stage one on the road to baldness. The very short cut was to ensure that it didn’t feel such an extreme step when my hair did disappear, though as I recorded at the time, I felt like Orville the duck!
My scalp was really tender, reminding me of the days many years ago when I had a very long hair. I remember that my scalp would ache if I tied my hair back too tightly. Now even resting my head on the pillow became really painful, and the hair very irritating as it fell on my super sensitive heebie-jeebie skin.
The second chemo session was on 15 November and Dr W2 expressed surprise that I still had hair. By this time I could feel each hair as it fell onto my skin and most of my time and energy was spent lifting and removing each hair.
It was clear that my days of having hair were numbered. There was a ridiculous amount of hair on my pillow in the morning. Now the thinning was becoming visible, particularly around my forehead. I knew that I would have to face the barber and have the remaining patches shaved.
So on Tuesday 17, two days after the second chemo and already feeling rough and sensitive I dragged myself reluctantly to the hospital hair dressers. I explained about my hair and being located in the hospital, I am sure they are used to this. The barber was summoned, and he appeared with the clippers. No matter how much I had tried to gear myself up to this, however it didn’t help. I couldn’t stop the tears falling, as the white of my scalp was exposed. My scalp and swollen follicles were really tender and the shaving more uncomfortable than I had expected. In no time it was finished, I was unrecognisable in the mirror and Doctor Evil had arrived!
I felt as if I was at my lowest point. The whole hair loss business had taken on a much greater significance than it should – I know that rationally – but that’s how it feels to me. No matter how much I try to rationalise this, the baldness feels like a visible cancer label.