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Dealing with Chemo Hair Loss May Take More Than a Wig and a Hat

The Shock Of It

Some women who lose their hair during chemotherapy take it all in stride, viewing the experience as necessary, unpleasant, and inconvenient, but nothing deeper or darker. I would have liked to have been one of those women. I was not.

When I started chemo for breast cancer and considered my certain hair loss, I was horrified. Frankly, my pending hair loss struck as much terror in my heart as my cancer diagnosis.

When I did lose my hair in 1985, I felt I had lost my dignity as well. Yes, it was that simple. I was embarrassed, ashamed, and then embarrassed about being ashamed. As a woman who considered herself "liberated" from the 70's on, I was astounded by how much vanity seemed to rule. I was totally preoccupied with my hair loss. Even though I covered my hair line (or what used to be my hair line) with a wig or a scarf, I still felt exposed. I looked at other women and the hair that they took for granted and felt unbridled envy.

Retrospect

Years later, and with a full head of hair I might add, I reflected on the nightmare and wondered WHY my hair loss was so devastating. Was it really just vanity kicking in or were there other factors in the mix? And WHAT could I have done differently to have felt less distressed during my bald stage?

Now in my late 60s, I was raised by parents who had yet to be enlightened by feminism. Thus as a little girl growing up there was a great deal of emphasis on being attractive. Being "pretty" was a huge value, not that I was in the running, but a big effort was made. Fast forward to the reflection in the mirror without my hair and the term UGLY seemed unavoidable.

The WHY — Sexism... History... Fairy Tales... Jokes... & Isolation

History also contributed to the impression that a woman's hair loss was a very bad thing indeed. Women's hair was forcibly cut off as a means of punishment. For example, women who were thought to have committed adultery had their hair cut off. French women who were thought to have conspired with the Germans during World War II had their heads shaved. The grounds for the accusations might have been questioned, but no one disputed that cutting of a woman's hair or shaving her head was an act of inflicting shame. Like it or not, those images are lurking around.

Also, many of us have permanently imprinted in our brains (either consciously or unconsciously) images from the fairy tales read to us in our youth. The detailed pictures showed the good queens, fairy godmothers, princesses, or any other heroine with magnificent, thick, shiny, long hair. On the other hand, Medusa, in mythology, had snakes for hair and was so ugly that anyone who merely looked at her turned to stone. And the evil stepsisters, witches and female characters up to no good always had, lets face it, "chemo hair" — thin, dull, sparse, and wiry. None of us want to to look in the mirror and see a reflection of the wicked witch with our features. Yikes!

Then there were those troublesome cartoons, movies and TV sitcoms we grew up with. If there was any reference to hair loss it would surely be the punch line. A woman's wig flying off in the wind — a laugh! A wig pulled off by an adversary, exposing not only a bald head but a failed effort to conceal it — a joke!

As if the sexism, historical references, fairy tale images, and jokes were not enough, I felt a profound sense of isolation that came from feeling different. It felt like everyone had hair but me and bald men, but they didn't count. Worse yet, as I pitied myself I felt others pitied me as well.

If I Had To Do It All Over Again

The challenge would be to hold on to my dignity while I lost my hair, and I think I now know what I could have done differently.

First, I'd let go of the hope that I would keep my hair during chemotherapy when the doctors said I would definitely lose it. I'd mourn the hair loss and cry, unapologetically, when I felt the urge.

Then I'd try to be be more mindful of those negative cultural and historical images of women's hair loss that moved into my mind without permission. I'd invite them up into the conscious for a conversation. I'd try to decide how much influence I really was going to allow them to have. If these painful thoughts of humiliating hair loss could be pulled out of the darkness, into the light, they might not have been not quite so scary. The paradox of some pain is that the more you resist and deny it, the more intense and resilient it may become.

To deal with the isolation I'd join a cancer support group to have some opportunity to be with my own kind and not feel so distinctly different. The repetition of my own thoughts banging around in my head got very tedious at best, painful at worst. A support group (there are now many) would have connected me with others having the same experience. I would have had an opportunity to put words to my feelings and hear others do the same. It would have been hard to feel isolated with the camaraderie of others going through the same thing.

In addition, I would have tried to be more realistic about how my hair loss appeared to others. There are so many products to cover one's head — hats, wigs, scarves, head wraps and turbans, so while I might not have had control over losing my hair, I would have had control over how to conceal it. I'd remind myself that a bald head that is covered is just a covered head to everyone else. The underlying "bald" image is not part of the picture.

I doubt that many women would ever choose to lose their hair, and few women will ever feel good about it. Some may feel totally comfortable leaving their baldness uncovered. No one will turn to stone (or so I'm told). For the rest of us, hair loss need not be all-consuming. There are many ways of dealing with it that let us put it in perspective and allow us to focus on the rest of our lives.

About the Author:
Verley Platt is a breast cancer survivor. A former social worker, she now designs and manufactures her own line of soft hats for women with hair loss which are available on her web site www.softhats.com. She may be contacted at tome@softhats.com.

Available for reprint with permission. Contact Verley for details.

 

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