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Diary of a Chemo Girl: My Hair, My Life

15/02/2011

I found out I needed chemo in a very unconventional way. It had been a little while since I had first been diagnosed with breast cancer but I was in pretty high spirits and wasn’t really worrying about anything because I kept telling myself over and over again… “I’ll do anything to fight this thing…at least I don’t need chemo”. I wasn’t nervous about the surgeries or any of the tests because I knew that none of those were as bad as having chemo. I was in my hospital bed getting ready to go into my second surgery as my doctor was explaining that she didn’t think I would have any problems getting pregnant later in life. Because of my nursing background I knew that those kinds of infertility issues only come up for patients receiving chemotherapy, not radiotherapy. I remember looking straight at her and I was barely able to whisper “Wait…does that mean I need chemo?” The world stood still for a moment as I let the word that she had just spoken sink in for a second.

“Yes.”


She continued telling me why it was necessary and so on …but I wasn’t listening. Then she left. I didn’t know what to think. I tried to hold back the tears but they just started streaming down my face. I didn’t know what to think or what to feel. I was devastated. The only thing that had kept me going up until that point was knowing that I wouldn’t have to have chemo, and now it was like my worst nightmare coming true.

For the first time since I had been diagnosed with breast cancer I was actually scared.

Nathalie, age 22

Chemotherapy (often simply called ‘chemo’) uses drugs to weaken and destroy cancer cells. Unlike other treatments, chemo works through the bloodstream and therefore affects not only the cancer cells but the whole body. This means that healthy cells can also be damaged- causing the unpleasant side-effects associated with chemotherapy. These side-effects include anaemia, fatigue, dry and sensitive skin, infertility, loss of appetite and weight loss, nausea and vomiting. Yet it was the prospect of losing her hair that caused Nathalie the most distress. She told me that she just couldn’t imagine herself bald and was terrified that she would be ugly. I think everyone (including Nathalie) would agree that hair loss may be an ultimately small price to pay for your life, yet I am equally sure that there are few women who wouldn’t sympathize with this very natural and instinctive response. Science explains hair loss due to chemotherapy as the drug attacking ALL rapidly growing cells- that includes cancer cells and… those in your hair roots. So now you know. But a woman’s relationship with her hair is a far less simple thing to rationalize.

Our hair is part of who we are…

A woman’s relationship with her hair is a deep and complex one. Who among us can’t identify with the agony of a bad hair day? That one day when it doesn’t matter one iota that your shoes and bag perfectly complement your outfit, or that said outfit includes the jeans you haven’t been able to fit into since you were 18, or that (miracle of miracles) you are spot free on the very day you happen to run into your ex-boyfriend, because- and I pause to let the full weight of this injustice sink in- you are having a bad hair day. I have smart, practical friends who keep hats and scarves in their closets for just such an event. I also have friends who will go into hiding, canceling business appointments and dates, and taking refuge under their duvets until the ordeal has passed. Mystifying and incomprehensible as it may be to men, the fact is that our hair is part of who we are. We use it to frame our features- highlighting or hiding where necessary. We use it to express our personalities and to project the image of ourselves that we wish the rest of the word to see. Erroneous and unreliable as this may be, we are all hard-wired to presume something of someone’s character from their hair- you only have to consider a few of the persistent stereotypes associated with blondes, brunettes and redheads.

Having long hair in particular is still viewed as a specifically feminine trait in many cultures. Just think of Lady Godiva, Rapunzel, or Botticelli’s ‘Venus’. On the other hand, short hair is perceived as ‘boyish’ or ‘manly’, making it understandable for many female chemo patients to feel as if they have lost some part of their womanhood. This is something that I can relate to. On an impulsive teenage whim I asked the hairdresser to recreate my beautiful cousin’s delicate and elfin pixie cut. I got something resembling an afro. Except only to the sides. In short, I looked like Hey Arnold. The mental and emotional scars (not to mention the photographic evidence) accumulated over the formative two-year period in which it took me to re-grow it remain with me to this day. I can’t parade through airport security without having flashbacks to family holidays in Asia and being asked “Sir, please queue for the men’s metal detector over there…” And, once on the plane, being given the Beano rather than the Barbie comic. Well, actually, that’s where I scored. But I think you see what I mean. Not once in that time did I ever feel pretty- two years of being mistaken for a boy does some serious damage to a girl’s self-esteem.

Who hasn’t hidden behind a curtain of hair to hide embarrassment, twirled strands when nervous, studiously monitored split-ends when bored, and of course employed luscious locks as a strategic weapon of warfare when flirting? My point is that hair can be a reminder of femininity, a boost to self-esteem, and a comfort. Without it… well, we can find ourselves bereft of all those things. How we wear our hair can have a huge influence on our demeanor, our posture, even our mannerisms. It’s the difference between wearing a cocktail dress with diamonds and heels, or shorts with beads and flip-flops. An elaborate and elegant up-do subconsciously lowers shoulders and arches the neck while a peek-a-boo fringe releases the inner femme fatale in all of us. Without being able to attempt that ‘shampoo ad’ over-the-shoulder flick, or even just to push away those annoying strands that won’t stay out of our eyes, a loss of hair can feel like so much more than just a change in style. It can take a while for our body to adjust,  leaving us with something akin to a phantom itch that simply cannot be scratched.

Some people will think I’m a neo-Nazi… or I’m a lesbian

When Natalie Portman shaved her head for ‘V for Vendetta’, she worried that “some people will think I’m a neo-Nazi or that I have cancer or I’m a lesbian”. Because when you are bald, as a woman you invite scrutiny into your life- willingly or not. As (my) Nathalie explained to me, “It’s difficult because I know when people look at me they’ll be able to tell [I have cancer] and it’s hard standing out in that kind of way. It’s like an intrusion into your privacy and comfort. A stranger will be able to walk by me and know more about me than I would ever share with a stranger.” She explained that she is not ashamed of having cancer or of the way she looks as a result but rather frustrated by her lack of control in the matter.

This is perhaps what made wig shopping such a revelatory experience for her. Nathalie is one of the few women who actually has an amicable relationship with their hair. It took me twenty-four years to reach a truce with my own (to be honest I think it was still holding a grudge from the ‘afro’ experience). We reached an understanding right about the time I agreed to stop torturing it. No more sun-in, chemical ‘relaxers’, permanent colours, semi-permanent tints, high-lights, low-lights… It’s an uneasy truce- we both know it won’t last. Like most women, I want what I can’t have; when it’s dark I want it blonde, when it’s long I want it short. The first thing I did after I had it chemically straightened? Bought curlers. Which is why wearing a wig can have its advantages- you can try any style you like. You can be anyone you like. You could even be yourself. This is important for many chemo patients who are already dealing with so many changes to their life. Some opt to give the experience a positive spin by having fun experimenting with the freedom to try new colours and styles- which may not have been possible with their natural hair. For many however, being able to recreate their same pre-chemo hairstyle provides a sense of normality and continuity and means that every time they look in the mirror they are not reminded otherwise.

Nathalie told me that as soon as she put her wig on, she knew it was the right one for her. She went so far as to say “I imagine you get the same feeling when you put on a wedding dress and you just know. And I love it! I actually love it even more than my regular hair.” She told me that it was at that moment that all her hair anxiety melted away and she knew everything was going to be ok.

This new found confidence gave her the strength to go straight to the salon and get her hair shorn in preparation for when it starts to fall out. Although a practical and convenient step, some people see it as something deeper and more powerful- a symbol that they are still in control. Another dear friend of mine saw an opportunity to be wild and crazy in a way she had never dared before. She plopped herself down into the chair and declared “Do whatever you want!” An hour later she looked like Halle Berry’s red-headed punk cousin. All agreed it was awesome. She was awesome. She looked on everything as an opportunity and if chemo was going to force a change on her then at least she would decide what that change was going to be. As Nathalie concluded, “this was one of my biggest hurdles. I can take the nausea and feeling lousy- those are just physical ailments. The hair was what was really bringing me down emotionally. But now I realize-it’s just hair. It will grow back. I will be okay.”

For Nathalie, the knowledge that she could just put on her wig and blend in to a crowd, without attracting any piteous glances, has given her the ambition and the power to be strong for whatever comes next. She seems as surprised as anyone that a simple wig has the power to do all this but she knows that it is not really about the hair at all. It is about doing something- anything- that helps you to feel confident and secure in yourself. Chemo may be tough on your body but it’s the mind and the spirit that so often take the biggest beating. By identifying what it is that gets you down and knowing how to combat it, you can fight back. As Nathalie now says, “I’m just ready to get started and kick this cancer thing in the butt!”

For inspiration on dealing with hair loss due to chemo in stylish and fashion-forward ways- click HERE

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. Amy permalink
    28/02/2010 19:41

    This article is brilliant and really explores some crucial and thought provoking issues. Nathalie’s diary entry literally sent shivers through my body and I think her attitude is truly inspirational. Nathalie definitely has ‘light from within’ as Elisabeth Kubler-Ross says.

    • 03/03/2010 13:15

      “People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.”
      – Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

  2. Ashlee permalink
    28/02/2010 23:46

    Hey, this is great and very relevant for me right now. I actually got quite sick last year and my hair fell out. Not so that I was bald but enough that you could see my scalp and I was very self-conscious. I kept it shorter than usual in an effort to hide the sparsity. Anyway it has come back now much thicker and completely curly! I am still struggling to get used to it and go from being ok with it to holding myself back from having a number 1 cut. Fortunately the man I am seeing loves it and tells me all the time but also doesn’t mind if my inner screams win and I cut it off. I am due to see the hairdresser on thursday and am still not sure what I am going to do!

  3. Joanne permalink
    03/03/2010 03:11

    Emotional, funny, tragic…all conspiring to be truly Inspirational.
    I have passed this article to a friend with cancer…hair falling out is huge, no doubt…dealing with eyebrows and eyelashes is also an issue!
    I shall be watching for the next instalments… and my heart is with Nathalie and other young women going through this.

  4. Anna permalink
    03/03/2010 11:17

    Thank you so much for this witty and uplifting post. I also have a close friend who is going through chemo at the moment and I found this when I was looking for ways to help her through it. I think Nathalie has an amazing attitude- plus she looks gorgeous in all the wigs! My friend is also losing her eyelashes and eyebrows- if Nathalie has any tips on how to cope with that it would be great to get some perspective! Thanks again.

  5. Felicity permalink
    03/03/2010 18:10

    This article has combined an honest insight into the importance of our everyday expressions of femininity with a moving personal example of the effect that an assault on such femininity can have. The result was my being transported into Nathalie’s shoes, generating a desire to see her and other chemo patients helped to retain or regain their femininity. Inspirational.

  6. 03/03/2011 20:45

    Truly Inspirational article …..

  7. Charlie permalink
    04/03/2011 10:49

    This article is an inspriation to any women out there who are struggling with the horrific reality that is cancer. The courage that Nathalie shows at such a young age is remarkable and her honest, brave account is uplifting for those who are trying to come to terms with and deal with this horrible and life changing disease.

    It is so important that articles such as this are written as living with this illness can be the most lonely and isolatiing experience. It is crucial that people understand that they are not alone and there experiences of chemo and other such therapies, are understood and felt by others who are going through the same.

    Thank you to prettyinprint for giving us some real insight into the reality of coping with this disease.

  8. Stacey permalink
    04/03/2011 18:06

    I always check in for new articles- and this is my favourite one so far! I laughed so much. I agree with everything everyone else has said- what a great idea for an article. I really hope Joanne is right and there is going to be more installments from Nathalie’s Diary. And to Nathalie- Good Luck with the treatment! I love your fighting spirit! x

  9. Emma permalink
    05/03/2011 00:01

    Thank you for sharing such a brave story! It’s easy to forget all the feminine things like hair and eyelashes that we women take for granted! Such a shame how little info and support is out there for chemo patients, especially in terms of what is available like wigs and even makeup(??) specifically suitable for cancer sufferers.

  10. Jess permalink
    05/03/2011 00:57

    What a great article on courage during tough times, on facing real pain only to look at the positive side and on maintaining an outward-looking approach to draw inspiration from those around. Truly heart warming and I only hope that if I go through this situation I will react similarly, and if someone close to me gets cancer then this article has given me an insight into emotions that I previously would perhaps have remained ignorant to. Thank you thank you thank you!

  11. Adele permalink
    05/03/2011 08:09

    I haven’t stopped talking about this article to my friends! It really made me think. Natalie, you have incredible honesty and strength of spirit! Keep fighting! Ax

  12. Stacey permalink
    05/03/2011 13:38

    I was actually watching ‘Brothers and Sisters’ the other day and was thinking a lot about this issue as Kitty has lost her hair due to Chemo and it was a real issue for her. I think shows like that which explore the reaction to the issue are great, and articles like this about a real story are even better! Well done for writing this and for drawing attention to a very sensitive issue in such a real and honest way. Beautifully written… x

  13. Rima permalink
    06/03/2011 01:24

    This article really took me by surprise; not because of the topic (as sadly I believe nearly everyone has known someone to be suffering with cancer), but because of the way that it illustrated problems faced by Chemo patients in a way that I could (if only slightly) identify with. I completely agree that fighting cancer is as much a mental as a physical exercise, and so I hope this article helps lift the spirit of other cancer patients. Ps. Natalie you are an incredible person!

  14. Kim permalink
    08/03/2011 06:51

    Great article–very touching!

  15. stephanie permalink
    09/03/2011 22:20

    It’s so important that subjects like this become normal parlance in beauty and fashion journalism. The huge increase in the instances of cancer in the last two decades should dictate that. This article is well written and the diary profoundly moving. Glad to have stumbled across it.

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