My cancer diagnosis startled everyone in my life, including myself. The first question I asked my doctor was if I would need chemotherapy. I was concerned that I would lose my long hair. I received a definitive yes to my question. And as with most chemotherapy treatments, it was confirmed that mine would induce alopecia (hair loss). Knowing that I was going to lose my hair broke my twenty-five year old heart. The cancer and treatments would compromise my life, my health, my fertility and so much more. And here I was crying about my hair. Like many other cancer patients, losing my hair seemed like a big deal.
Studies have shown that alopecia is one of the most painful side effects of chemotherapy, and it often ranks among the first three most important side effects for breast cancer patients (Sitzia and Huggins, 1998; Duric et al., 2005; Lemieux et al., 2008).
After the shock of my cancer diagnosis wore off, I became excited. I was going to buy a multitude of wigs; I could be a different person every day. After all, that is what the support navigators told me. I could be a blonde one day, a redhead the next. One participant (in our group session) candidly pointed out that her husband loved the mystery of not knowing whom he was coming home to. There was one problem. I did not have a husband who I could seduce with a gamut of hairpieces.
When my hair actually began to fall out I was surprised. In the back of my mind, I had convinced myself I would be the exception. But just as the doctors had warned – my hair fell out. It fell out in handfuls. Hair was everywhere and clumps of it clogged my bathroom drain. The situation was a horrible, messy nightmare.
I slowly began to despise cancer. I hated what it was doing to my body.
The social stigma of being completely bald began to play on my mind. I was transported back to junior high; I wanted the acceptance of total strangers even though I disliked their stares. Their imaginary conversations (that played repeatedly in my mind) distorted my reality. I was an imposter trying to be someone that I was not.
At first, the wigs were entertaining, but the thrill wore off. In the summer heat, the wigs were uncomfortable and made my head itchy. The hairlines were impossible to get right. Wearing a wig made me feel self-conscious and I was constantly adjusting my “hair”. I did not have the financial resources to buy a quality wig and have it custom fitted for my head. I was fearful that my ill-fitting wig would slip off or the wind would blow it away.
I became tired of being the bald cancer girl. I longed for my old self. No wig, scarf or hat seemed to bring her back.
As time continued, the treatments began to take their toll on my body. More hair fell out. It became increasingly difficult to recognize the stranger in the mirror. I loved that I did not have to shave my legs, but I hated that I had to lose my eyelashes. I would apply thick coats of mascara on the three or four lashes that remained. It may not have been particularly attractive, but it was my attempt to look normal.
A 2013 Needs Assessment report conducted by Rethink Breast Cancer notes, “the challenges a breast cancer patient faces does not end with the conclusion of treatment. Women may still experience physical pain, isolation, depression and anxiety.”
When I completed my chemotherapy treatments I had a goal in mind. I was going to grow my hair back. If I could get my hair to look the same as it had prior to cancer, maybe my life would return to normal. I struggled for years trying to achieve this. I endured too-short hair, curly hair, and dry damaged hair. Finally I was able to achieve a look that was similar to my pre-cancer self.
But when I looked into the mirror, my reflection did not give me the resolution I had thought it would.
Looking back on my experience, I can see I was continuously grasping for my former image. I did not recognize my hair loss as a valid source of grief. I was stuck between the past and the present. I needed to accept my present reality.
My reaction to my chemotherapy-induced alopecia may seem trivial to some, but losing my hair significantly impacted my life. The loss of my hair had a tremendous impact on my psyche. I still have issues with self-worth and self-image. However, when I look in the mirror, I no longer search for someone that once was. I am learning to accept the woman I have become both inside and out. I have realized that life is best lived when I am present. And being present means letting go of the past.