When we think of a cancer patient, the image of a bald head inevitably is part of that picture. For cancer patients ourselves, hair loss is a reality we must face. Even if we choose to embrace the hair loss as a sign of healing (it means the chemotherapy treatment is working), it still hangs over us as we journey towards healing. Will I lose my hair? When will it happen? How will I handle it when the time comes? What does my head look like under there? How will people react to me?
For the first six months of my cancer treatment, I felt like I was walking around with a big secret. I bet those kids dancing next to me at the Deer Tick show had no idea I was a cancer patient. It’s like the time my water quietly broke while I was perusing the pineapples at Whole Foods. It was kind of a big deal and I felt like I should tell somebody that my baby was on his way, but I didn’t want to freak out the produce guy. If my water had come gushing out, it would be a different story—everyone would know. If we quietly fight cancer and manage to keep our locks out of it, we can cruise through the world, hiding in plain sight.
And yet what does it mean to lose our hair? Why does that happen for some patients and not others? The chemotherapy drugs I received in the summer and fall were part of a clinical trial. They were testing the use of those drugs in the pre-surgery (neo-adjuvant for all you science minds) setting. It was a targeted therapy, going straight to the cancer cells in my body and (mostly) leaving the rest of my cells alone. I completed six infusions and didn’t experience any noticeable hair loss.
For more traditional chemotherapy drugs, they work by targeting rapidly dividing cells. Cancer cells divide rapidly; so do hair, nail, and those in the GI tract. My Naturopathic doctor (ND) told me that hair loss is a therapeutic response; it means that the chemotherapy drugs are working. I don’t go to Dana Farber every Tuesday for the free apple juice, I go there for the intravenous drugs. If losing my hair means that my time is well spent, then bring it on.
But then they tell you: not everybody loses their hair. Sometimes it just thins out. And different chemotherapy drugs impact hair differently. There are fancy new devices called “cold caps” available now—they can help preserve your hair. But they too come with a cost—they’re in limited supply, only at the Boston Dana Farber, cost money, require a longer infusion time, and you can’t cut, color, or otherwise agitate your hair for the months you’re in treatment. So much hullabaloo about the hair!
When I started my post-surgery infusions on January 2nd, I knew that hair loss was likely (although not everyone on this chemo protocol experiences it) and I was told to expect it by the 6th treatment if it were going to happen. Waiting to see if my hair will fall out is one more odd experience in a string of very odd experiences. It started to happen over the weekend between treatments three and four. One day I pulled out six hairs together—game on. The 4th treatment on Tuesday 1/23 accelerated the process, and I booked my wig and shave appointments for Friday 1/26, a week ago today.
In 2015 I cut 10 inches off my hair (donated to Pantene Beautiful Lengths) and rocked a pixie cut for the first time. I was in health coaching school, had given up alcohol for the year, and felt strongly compelled to try on a really short hairstyle. It took some getting used to, but I did, and I liked it. I started growing it back out in early 2017 and was just about to hit the awkward stages when I received my cancer diagnosis. Heal from cancer AND deal with awkward hairstyles? No thank you! Jessica (my hairstylist) trimmed it up again and encouraged me to go platinum. If I’m gonna lose my hair anyway, why not lose rock star hair? This time in my life can be described in many ways—“the year I went platinum” is one of them.
When I realized this hair was going faster than I expected, I didn’t mourn the loss of my hair in general. Hair loss = chemo works, I’m on board with that. Waiting for your hair to maybe fall out isn’t a great time and feeling like your hair is falling out while you’re in the middle of a conversation with someone is really bizarre. I wasted no time in booking those appointments. As Friday approached though, I felt a bit sad that my rock star hair didn’t have one last night on the town. I don’t plan to go platinum when my baby hair grows back in; I may never be platinum again. Lucky for me, my rock star hair hangs with a cool crowd, and we were invited to a show last Thursday night. My friends hooked me and my hair up with VIP tickets to the Foundation Room at the House of Blues to see Greensky Bluegrass. Boom! Don’t fight the Powers.
My dear friend Daphnee offered to meet me at the wig shoppe for support. Her son Benny was home from preschool, so he came too. Three is a party, so I brought party favors. Wine glasses and sparkling seltzer for the hair salon (juice boxes for Benny!), a theme song for my hair’s “coming out” party, and a rotating disco ball light bulb. It’s not every day a gal gets to shave her head and start over. It seemed a milestone more worthy of a celebration than a crying session.
As I drove down to Cranston (where the fancy ladies go!), I listened to the words of Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out” (my hair’s theme song, obvi) with fresh ears. Miss Ross was onto something. Forget just the shaving of the head party, this could be a theme song for the whole cancer party. Give it a listen this weekend if you have a moment.
“There’s a new me coming out
And I just had to live
And I just want to give
I’m completely positive
I think this time around
I am gonna do it
Like you never knew it
Oh, I’ll make it through”