Yesterday I shaved my head and I gotta say, I must be hair to the throne, ‘cause I’m feelin’ like a princess.
Okay, so excuse that horrendous pun but I feel like it needed saying because:
a) I actually don’t think it was all that horrendous, in fact I thought of it in the shower and was majorly pleased with myself, to the point where I cut my shower as short as my hair and started writing this post immediately
b) I feel like there is this assumption that hair loss has to always be traumatic for the individual going through chemo.
I was one of those people who, before all this, thought that hair loss would be one of the more difficult aspects of chemo. I actually have always had this real deep seated fear of losing my hair, mainly based on my deep seated belief that my head was an incredibly abnormal shape. If you have been reading my blog for a while, or have spoken to me for more than thirty seconds in the last six months, you probably know this about me. If the latter is true, it is very likely that on top of being so very lucky to be graced with my presence, you were also lucky enough to be forced to feel my head. People’s reactions were always the hilarious giveaway, turning from complete assuredness that surely it can’t be that bad, to an all too telling confused “oh”, followed by “well how did that happen?!” It was all but getting to the point where I was bracing myself for hours of scouring YouTube for tutorials on how to contour the back of my head.
However, I am incredibly pleased to announce that I have conquered one of my biggest fears. Hooray! It wasn’t a sudden slaying of the beast but an amalgamation of factors that came together to make me feel beautifully calm and positively okay about losing my hair. In this post I will take you through the cancer-y chemo equivalent of hazing, otherwise known as the ritual head shaving, and in the following post these factors, in the hope that it gives you a little more insight into what it is really like to be forced to get rid of one’s hair, and that it might give you an idea of how to feel a little less awful about the whole thang should it happen to you. I want to warn you this is a pretty long post, there was a lot I wanted to include because hair loss can be a pretty big deal, so maybe before you start grab a cuppa, settle down and get stuck in.
HAIR TODAY GONE TOMORROW
My chemo team had warned me that, on average, hair loss occurs three weeks after chemo begins. This isn’t just the hair on my head that they were talking about, it is every single little hair, from the obvious and easy to see hair to the teeny weeny hairs that you didn’t even realise were there, but once gone make you, according to those who have experienced hair loss, ridiculously smooth.
The first hair to begin to go was my pubic hair (I really hate the word pubic, but I figure if I can go through all this cancer treatment then I can pull myself together and type the word pubic), which began to go on Sunday. As soon as I noticed this was going, it became a sort of obsession to gently pull on the hair all over my body to see whether it was still stuck firm or coming out pretty easily.
This is actually pretty embarrassing to write, I never really thought I would be writing about my pubes online for all to see but fuck it, this can serve as some sort of remembrance to them – RIP pubes. But anyway, each time I went to the loo I would, without yanking them, pull out as many as I could. It was weirdly therapeutic and as I flushed I would bid a not particularly regretful adieu to them all. I probably wouldn’t have admitted to this had I not heard from others who have done chemo that they did the same, because it’s definitely not a weird thing to write if I’m not alone in doing this. Fingers crossed its not anyway…
After Sunday, my pubes stopped falling out (for some reason all the unwanted hair on my body seems to be determined to cling on for dear life) and other hair began to follow. On Monday, the hair on my head began to slowly fall out. In the morning I woke up and, despite what all the cancer tales tell you, for me there was none on my pillow; even as it began to fall out more quickly, I never woke up with any on my pillow. Instead I would run my hands through my hair and end up with a nice handful, the sort of amount you would find in your brush after attacking your knotty hair. It was nothing major, there was no way if you looked at me you would think I was losing my hair, and for me it wasn’t upsetting; it was only a few strands, plus I was prepared for it. I was pretty sure that losing my hair wasn’t going to be a traumatic experience, in fact I posted on Sarcoma Alliance, a fantastic support group on Facebook for those affected by sarcoma that I would massively recommend joining if you are a patient or a carer, that we all have our demons but hair loss is not mine, it is not my Everest.
I knew a hair wash would probably end up in further hair loss but it was looking pretty grotty and a shower was definitely necessary so I jumped in, whacking up the volume so I could have my daily shower boogie. My mind wandered from hair loss, momentarily forgetting I had cancer as I made full use of the bathroom acoustics and belted the chorus of Shaggy, “wasn’t me”, until I pulled my hand from my hair and a nice clump of hair came with it.
I’ll admit that despite my best preparations it took me by surprise and it was the only moment through all this hair loss when I felt butterflies in my stomach, a slight elevation of heart rate and that weird pang of nerves. It was just the shock of actually seeing my hair in my hand, after feeling no pulling or pain on my scalp at all. I recovered quickly from it though; after shouting SHIT loudly, taking a deep breath and thinking about how hilarious the past ten seconds must have looked, it became a morbid fascination to watch as my hair came out.
I dried my hair, a little more coming out with each brush, and then, deciding to really make the most of what little time I had left with my luscious blonde locks, I moved onto something I hadn’t done in a long time: straightening. This was when things got funny, and my hair loss became almost comical to me. Trying to defluff the baby fluff around my hairline, I closed the straighteners around some hair, but as I did so all the hair came away from my head. This sounds scary but honestly it really just cracked me up. It reminded me so much of that YouTube video of that poor girl who curls her hair around her tongs, but instead it all just comes out. If you haven’t, I definitely recommend it.
Throughout all the day my hair continued to float, little by little, around me so that wherever I went I had an glowing blonde aura of hair. I had that irritating itchiness all up my arms and around my neck, just like you do when you come out the hairdressers. My clothes would have hair all over them and wearing black was a bad move because it showed so much that I looked like a crazy cat lady, with exceptionally long haired cats. I would sit there in front of the television or chatting with friends, absentmindedly pulling out strands and strands. Still though, my hair loss wasn’t noticeable and this continued for a couple of days, speeding up but still not having reached that stage where enough was enough, and a shave was necessary.
This changed on Thursday, when I woke up and brushed my hair, becoming weirdly competitive about how much hair I could get stuck in the brush and pulling out about 20% in the process. I knew a hair wash would really finish the job, but my hair was looking proper minging at this point and so I jumped in. I gently shampooed my hair, which I could feel thinning at my very fingers, bunging each bit of hair that came out on the shower seat. I moved onto conditioning and I felt a massive knot in my hair, so I slapped on a bit extra to detangle it and left it for a few minutes. As I began to untangle it though the entire knot came away in my hands. At this point about 50% of the hair was remaining on my head, with the rest on the chair, and so I called it quits. I got out the shower and shouted downstairs to my mum to tell her.
I’m not going to lie, I was a bit scared about how my mum would take it. My hair loss wasn’t scary for me, but I knew this might not be the case for the people around me, who would be reminded of my diagnosis each time they looked at me. There was no escaping it now for them; it would be slapp(head)ing them in the face all the time. On top of that, there was the extra worry that my mum would be transported back to her own struggles with hair loss, when she underwent chemo for breast cancer a good few years ago. I know how hard she found not only hair loss, but chemo in general, and I didn’t want to be the one to take her back there, to a time she didn’t enjoy remembering, whenever she looked at me.
I am ashamed to say though that I completely underestimated my mum, who’s strength, resilience and character has blown me away throughout this whole journey. I think her close involvement in my hair loss helped a lot, as it became a thing we did together. Although she could have been involved even further if she had taken on board any of my suggestions that she shave her head in solidarity with me, something she would have done if she loved me half as much as she says she does!
So this is what happened: my mum came in the room, very nervous as to how she would react, and I was very nervous for her too. When she came in though, I still had a good head of hair in some places, and it looked more like a weird undercut gone wrong. She said she wanted to dry and shave my head, and I had no problem with that.
After my now wispy hair was dried, we moved to the bathroom. My mum produced a pair of big red IKEA scissors, those ones that every household in England owns and come in packs of three. Turns out they are way too cheap, crappy and blunt to be used on hair without causing real pain, but we persevered and she gave me a fashionable, super edgy scarecut, making me feel like I was auditioning for Anne Hathaway’s part in Les Miserables. And may I just add that I think I would have been an excellent casting by my performance; the way I sang I dreamed a dream of time gone by would have brought tears to the eyes of even the coldest of souls.
Then my mum shaved the head and I took an embarrassing number of selfies whilst she did so. It was strangely exciting having my head shaved, and I felt nothing but positive emotions both as the shaving was done and after. It was totally liberating, just getting rid of something I had always had, and I felt enormously empowered, like I should go and join a protest somewhere, regardless of the cause. And I still feel like that (empowered/liberated, not the protest thing – it’s too cold, especially now without hair) because this head shaving would have been a big thing for me before, but because of my mental and physical struggle with sarcoma it is not a big thing now.
My mum being involved in this way meant the power was in our hands, in the form of a razor, rather than the hands of sarcoma and the chemo drugs. They didn’t take my hair, instead we hacked it off with IKEA scissors and shaved it with a razor. It also meant it wasn’t a grand reveal; my hair got shorter gradually in plain view of both of us, however if I had done it myself without her involvement, I think the shock of seeing such a drastic change would have upset her.
Bizarrely, this hair loss has turned out to be an incredibly positive experience. I know I can’t speak as someone who has experienced hair loss completely at this stage, because my eyebrows are still firmly intact, as are my eyebrows, eyelashes and, incredibly irritatingly, my leg hair, armpit hair and about 25% of my pubic hair. Unsurprisingly, the fact that I have needed to shave my head hair, but all that body hair that I would rather fall out is stuck firm has mildly pissed me off. But speaking as someone who has shaved their head as a result of chemo, I feel surprisingly exceptional.
I am proud of myself for the way I have handled this hair loss and because of that, I feel good about myself. I am digging my new look and it is more about what it symbolises for me, than how I think others perceive me, that is what is giving me this heightened level of self appreciation, body positivity and all around self love. For me, this hair loss doesn’t represent cancer, instead it represents what I made of something that could have been traumatic. I have never been someone with particularly high self esteem, so I am really enjoying the freedom I now feel from self doubt and negativity. At this moment, more than ever, I feel good about me rather than good about the way others perceive me. This head shave was done for me, no one but me, and I have found a different, more warm, full and satisfying happiness that comes from within through this hair loss.
When I look in the mirror I don’t see a cancer victim. Others may see that, in fact I am sure that is all they see, but I don’t care what they see. Strangers can gawp all they want, because I am not ashamed; after all, what do I have to be ashamed of? Much like yesterday when we were shopping and I felt others were avoiding my eye contact, whenever I begin to feel self consciousness seep in I ask myself this question, and the only answer I can find is that I have cancer, which is a totally ludicrous thing to feel ashamed of. Because am I ashamed that I am battling a vicious disease that takes resilience and strength to even undergo the treatment to try to beat it? No, I am not.
For me, that is the only question I need to ask myself to climb out of that hole of self consciousness and doubt. There is nothing I am afraid for these people to see, so they can stare all they want. I am not scared to lay my weaknesses nor my experiences out there for public consumption in my fight for health and recovery, because having weaknesses doesn’t make a person weak. Instead, admitting them and owning them makes them strong. And I feel like I have owned this hair loss, so I don’t feel self conscious, instead just my best me.
That is why I am happy to wear nothing but my brightly shining beautiful slap head out because it is something I should be proud of. Not because of what it represents to strangers – the cancer that is all that they see – but because of what it represents for me. It represents strength, bravery, empowerment and every incredible person and fierce battle that has contributed to me dealing with my hair loss in the way I have. That is what I see when I look in the mirror, and that is why I can, proud and unflinching, look you in the eye.