When I first learned I was going to have chemotherapy, there were two thoughts that roared into my head like a freight train. One, I’m going to be terribly sick, nauseous and vomiting, and man, I’ve always HATED throwing up. And two, I’m going to lose my hair and be bald.
WOW. It was a lot to absorb all at once. The doctor wrote out on a pad of lined paper the course of treatment I’d receive–chemo every three weeks, six times total, stretching over four months, with some unpronounceable triumvirate of chemicals doing the dirty work. This would decrease my chances of a recurrence by 8 percent, and oh, let me write down the list of side effects, too: nausea and vomiting, hair loss, mouth sores, diarrhea, premature menopause… WOW again. Heck, I was still stuck on nausea and hair loss, never mind all this other stuff. I basically shut down, and left the office with an overwhelming sense that I was in for a very rough few months. (Which wasn’t helped any by a co-worker sharing with me that “I had a friend who went through chemo, and it was the worst experience of her life.” HELLO. Never share information like that with someone about to do chemo. True though it may be, it’s just plain thoughtless to say it.)
Once I had a chance to absorb the information, I still kept coming back to the original two demons. Which is worse, the pain and discomfort of nausea, or the embarrassment of hair loss? The day finally came for my first treatment. The nurse ran an IV needle into my hand, hooked up the bags, and off we went. And as it happened, I lucked out; several hours after finishing, the next day, 2 days later… I kept waiting, but no nausea. Just a bit of queasiness, like morning sickness. WHEW. Dodged that bullet. Hair loss, however, was inevitable, so it won by default: the worst thing about chemo was losing my hair.
I got some very good advice from some chemo veterans at the beginning of treatment. First, decide what you’re going to do about being bald. If you’re interested in looking as normal as possible, wear a wig; one of Jacki’s archived blogs, Chemo Incognito, has wonderful advice about how to select, wear, and care for a wig. I wasn’t interested in wearing a wig; to me, it sounded itchy, and I didn’t like the idea of having to care for it. So I chose hats. And during the 4 weeks or so from the time I started chemo till the time my hair started to fall out, I prepared for the change.
First, I cut my shoulder-length hair to ear-length. It was a cute cut, and immediately changed my look–not drastically, but enough for people to get used to seeing a “new me.” A week or so later, I got my hair cut again, this time very short, only about an inch long. Ask someone at your hospital–a nurse, a social worker–about stylists who specialize in cutting hair for chemo patients; our local hospital has someone right in the building. It’s nice to go to someone who knows what’s going on, so that you don’t have to answer questions about how short, why, and do you want to schedule an appointment next month for a trim? These “chemo stylists” give a GREAT extra-short haircut, no questions asked! When my hair finally started falling out in clumps (I felt like I was molting!), my husband lathered up my head with shaving cream and shaved it all off.
In retrospect, being bald was… interesting. I’d never seen the shape of my head so clearly, nor felt the sensation of a cool breeze (or hot shower) on my bare scalp. An added bonus–I didn’t have to shave, legs or underarms. And when eventually my hair grew back, it was curly: no more perms! Like much of cancer, the fear proved worse than the reality. So, if you’re about to lose your hair, take heart: it might not be as bad as you’re imagining. You’ll get through it–I promise!