Dealing with Hair Loss (Part 1) –

On the day I learned I had cancer, I experienced a type of mental numbness. My brain felt encased in armor, which protected my fragile psyche from the sharp words used to explain my condition.

Extremely rare tumor… chemotherapy… labs… port surgery… chemotherapy… chemotherapy…

The armor is what enabled me to sit quietly and continue to breathe without interruption. But then my oncologist uttered a phrase – an arrow so sharp that it pierced the armor and sent a searing pain through my body.

You will begin to lose your hair in between your first and second chemotherapy treatments. 

This news was not unexpected; however, its definitive confirmation instantly removed the source of hope I was using to counterbalance the gravity of my situation.

In the almost two weeks between my surgery and diagnosis, knowing that I was most likely headed toward some type of cancer treatment, I entertained the possibility that it would be one that spared me from losing my hair.

I considered whether this was an unreasonable outcome to expect.  I mean, come on, wasn’t I due to get a bounce that went my way?

Apparently not.

The chemotherapy regimen my doctor recommended was the equivalent of being on the losing end of the playground seesaw.  As my armor disintegrated, my last bastion of hair hope came crashing to the ground.

I have spoken with many cancer patients, and hair loss due to treatment is one of the worst aspects of a diagnosis.

However, there is no pain associated with hair loss.  It does not create any complications with your treatment.  In fact, losing your hair is a sign that your chemotherapy is doing its job, as it kills all your fast-growing cells.  And, once treatment is over, your hair will grow back.

So why is it so hard?

Because to a cancer patient, losing your hair is a total “Fuck You.”

In my experience, this was due to two reasons.

Number One: Hair Loss Attacked My Dignity

Initially, when I realized that I would lose my hair during chemotherapy, my knee-jerk reaction to my emotional response was that it was tied to my vanity, which was partially correct.  While one’s sense of personal vanity varies in importance according to the individual, I think its fair to say that human nature dictates that we all want to put our best foot forward relative to our physical appearance.

But hair loss goes deeper than vanity.  As if being targeted by a mugger in a moment of extreme vulnerability, hair loss attempts to rob you of your dignity.

Up to this point, every time something was thrown at me, whether it was uncertainty, surgery, recovery, etc., my first thought was always, How do I get through this?  And this thought consistently triggered an internal response in which I would move into action and start formulating a plan.

But, how do I deal with hair loss?  I didn’t have an immediate answer for this, mostly because it just felt so unfair.  Finding normalcy through cancer was tied directly to my confidence level in being able to weather it.

Haven’t I been given enough? 

If cancer were a person, he was basically telling me the following:

I know that I have put a lot on your plate. However, before you get started, I am going to add one more thing.  In addition to continuing to recover from your surgery (during which your entire stomach was cut wide open) and preparing for chemotherapy (which will bring forth a bunch of nasty side effects) – here’s one more challenge.  Every day when you wake up, you will be reminded that throughout this ordeal, you must interact with the world having no hair.  You also may be without your eyebrows and eyelashes.  I haven’t decided yet on the eyebrows and eyelashes.  I will get back to you on this during treatment. 

If cancer were a person, he would be a total asshole.

Number Two: Hair Loss Attacked My Privacy

From the moment I realized I was dealing with a serious health crisis, I struggled with how to be fully transparent with the people in my life and share the news of my situation.

When cancer appears, it draws your immediate attention to what you need to heal physically.  But without question, over time, dealing with cancer forces you confront the other aspects of your life, which also need attention.  Learning to be more open and comfortable with vulnerability was high on my list.

But the thought of impending hair loss felt like an hourglass over my head, in which the sand descended at an alarmingly fast rate, marking the time I had left before the world would know that I was a cancer patient.

Again, not fair.

During my chemotherapy orientation, I discussed wig options with the physician assistant.  She provided me with several catalogs that featured a full range of wigs, scarves and apparel – basically anything a cancer patient might need.

As I flipped through the pages, the faces of smiling women in headscarves and fake hair met my glance.

There is no way these women have cancer, I thought to myself.  They are way too happy.  And every single one of them has a full set of eyebrows and eyelashes.

As someone who has spent my entire career in sales and marketing, I instantly realized the inherent challenge in marketing products to cancer patients.  On the one hand, seeing a catalog full of cancer patients modeling the latest in “chemo wear” was difficult.

But I was also annoyed by the exact opposite – as viewing the happy faces of well-intentioned women – who, I was fairly certain, did not have cancer – was also not helpful.

I was still pondering this conundrum when I heard the physician assistant say, Have you thought about having a wig made from your own hair?

Is that an option? I tentatively asked, fearful that I may have incorrectly heard what she said.

It is an option, she replied.  There is a wigmaker in Seattle who several of our patients have used to get a wig made from their own hair.  I will get his contact information for you.

After weeks of playing defense, I relaxed into the thought that this information may be a game changer.

Within me, I could feel a tiny seed being planted.  A seed that I prayed would grow and flower into the “hope” I knew I must reclaim, in order to restore the confidence I needed to move forward.

SCHEDULE UPDATE: Today’s post is Part 1 of how I dealt with hair loss due to chemotherapy.  Part 2 will post on Tuesday, July 10th, as the blog will be off next week due to the July 4th holiday.  My apologies for the cliffhanger. 😊

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