Hair loss can be a side effect of chemotherapy. We see people with scarves on their head and just know they have cancer. There are many other invisible side effects of chemo. Hair loss is an obvious sign. The scarf on your head is a sign with an arrow pointed at you that screams, "I HAVE CANCER!" People treat you differently. Perfect strangers react when normally they wouldn't. They'll wait a few moments for you to catch up while they hold the door. They'll offer to let you go ahead of them in the checkout line. They'll pick up your check when you're out to dinner. I'll have a separate blog post soon on appearances, and how they seem to make a difference on how we treat others. Today, I want to talk about hair. Hair loss, anticipating and preparing for that hair loss, and hair growing back.
I had heard from other people who had gone through chemo that it generally takes one to three weeks for the hair to start falling out after the first chemo treatment. I prepared. On the advice of my oncologist and my hairdresser, I cut my hair to shoulder length in anticipation; cut it to make the transition a little easier once it started falling out. Didn't go too drastic because both of them said that it may just thin, may or may not fall out completely. I bought hats and scarves. I looked up youtube vidoes on how to tie a chemo scarf. My oncologist gave me a prescription for a "cranial prosthesis" (wig). I made an appointment with Hans at Eivind and Hans in Georgetown. Hans was great. He has experience working with cancer patients. He asked a few questions, I showed him a picture of me with long hair, he left the room and came back with about five wigs. One of them I took home. He showed me how to style it, told me that if I had any trouble styling it, or wanted it styled for a special event, to bring it back and he would be happy to. It was an emotional experience, picking out a wig. But with all of that, I was ready, or so I thought.
I knew it was coming. Ladies in the support group had warned of the signs. My scalp would tingle. That's the hair follicles loosening, they said. My scalp started tingling. I thought I was ready for it. I was not. Well, it happened just like you always have heard it described. You know how you run your hands through your hair while you're rinsing out the shampoo in the shower? Well, all of a sudden I had a handful of hair in my hand, that wasn't attached to my head. Oh, the feeling. Yes, there were tears. There was a greater amount of hair in my hand with each shower. Hair would also come out in my brush after the shower. Each time was just like the first. Unsettling, I think is a good word to describe it, although that seems like an understatement. When it started coming out randomly when I just touched my hair during the day, putting it behind my ear, for instance, I knew it was time to shave my head. Well, that and the fact that I couldn't stand the unsettling, feeling like the first time, every time clumps came out. So, my wonderful husband shaved my head for me. I started wearing scarves the next day. I didn't wear a scarf around the house, but kept one nearby just in case anyone came by. I didn't really feel comfortable with people seeing me bald. As time went on, I was more comfortable. I stopped putting on a scarf when family came by. A good friend from years ago came to spend a few hours, and I felt comfortable after awhile with taking the scarf off. Sometimes the scarf could become uncomfortable, especially after the hair started growing back. It actually hurt a little when it started growing back, when I lay my head down on a pillow, or leaned back in a chair. Picture razor stubble all over your head. It took a while after it starting growing back for me to think it was time to ditch the wig and the scarves. Wearing my hair this short is way out of my comfort zone (it hadn't been shorter than shoulder length since I was in the eight grade), but it was time.
So, a few weeks ago I got my hair colored (because it came back with a lot more gray than before) and trimmed. First time setting foot in the hair salon in about a year. I'd finally decided to ditch the scarves, hats and the wig. Right now, my hair is about three inches long, seven months post chemo.
It was weird, sitting in that chair in the salon. While I sat in the chair and waited for my hairdresser to mix the color, I felt so apprehensive. Not about the color, we talked and decided on my natural haircolor. Sure, I had thought about it over the past few months, throwing around the idea of different colors. All red (auburn, really), dark brown with red highlights, or just dark brown. I even entertained the thought of maybe putting in streaks of pink/green/teal, which are the colors of the Metavivor ribbon, which represents Stage IV breast cancer. A coworker suggested I go blond. That would be really out of my comfort zone.
So, while I was waiting, the shampoo girl asked why I had decided to cut may hair so short. As I was telling her that it was chemo induced, and actually just now growing back, I realized -- she doesn't know I have cancer. Nobody here but my hairdresser probably knows I have cancer. First time in about a year that I went out in public ... and ... nobody ... knew. Wow, the scarf makes a huge difference. I was there for quite awhile. Both of my sons had their hair cut, too, and my husband was on his way. I was exhausted, having worked all day (no normal afternoon rest/nap), and felt a bit self conscious to be out in public without anything on my head. My hairdresser must have read my thoughts, because she said, "Tammy, no one knows. Nobody here knows." It was weird. I'm having trouble explaining it. Maybe I'll find the right words when I type the post about appearances. I guess the thing is that it's the first time in over a year that people out in public treated me "normal".
So, as she was shampooing the color out of my hair, the shampoo girl (I really wish I could remember her name) commented on how brave and strong all of us who have breast cancer (all cancer, really) are. I told her I could only speak for myself, but I certainly don't feel strong or brave. I don't do anything, really, but lay there and let the doctors, nurses, and techs poke and prod and do their thing. The techs with the scans, the nurses with the infusions, and the doctors, well, for saving my life. I actually feel like a coward sometimes, not wanting to deal with it at all. You know what she said to that?
That's when I remembered stories of people who had given up. I remembered my mother who had a stroke one October day, and ended up giving up the following January. I hear stories of women who are just too tired to deal with it anymore, and they give up. I'm certainly not saying that everyone that dies is not strong. Not at all. There comes a point when it becomes too much.
What she said touched me. I guess I am stronger than I thought. :)
This brings to mind a book I read years ago -- Rise and Walk, by Dennis Byrd. The quote that I remembered is from the Second Book of Corinthians in the Bible: "And He said to me, "My grace is sufficient for thee, for My strength is made perfect in weakness."
As an aside, I've often wondered why hair loss is so unsettling. Yes, we look completely different. But just like any of the other side effects, we see it coming. We know we're going to be nauseous after chemo, so we stock up on crackers and ginger ale, and we get a prescription filled for Zofran. We know we're going to be in pain, so we get a prescription for a pain medication. We know our hair is going to fall out, so we buy scarves, a wig or two, and we may even make a pre-emptive strike and shave our head. I guess the thing is, we've been nauseous before, we've been in pain before. We've dealt with those things before. This hair loss thing, it's a first. Every time you look in the mirror, a stranger looks back. Your mind might forget for awhile, but as soon as you see your reflection, You're reminded of this horrible disease you have, and sometimes it's like a slap in the face. Even now, a few weeks after the hair color and cut, sometimes I get surprised when I look in the mirror.
A few days ago, I mentioned to someone that every time I look in the mirror I see a stranger. She said, "...but look at the blessing; you get to see." Yes.