Health: Cancer and Hair Loss
Hair. We all have bad hair days, but how would we feel if we lost it?
In 2016 I was first diagnosed with breast cancer and was given chemotherapy which, as we know, more often than not, causes hair loss. Last year my cancer returned. But this time I still have hair.
It seems it is something people secretly want to know about. If I've not seen someone for a while and we're chatting by text, you can bet it won't be long before the elephant in the room is addressed - 'Have you still got your hair?'.
So what have I done differently? At the time of my first diagnosis I had long blonde hair, complete with extensions. The first thing I did was to have the extensions removed and then let the drugs do their thing. After years of dying my hair, the condition wasn't great so to try and find some good in a bad situation, I thought I'd try different styles as it grew. How bad can it be I thought, after all, it grows back (what you don't realise is that it is growing back from deep at the root, rather like a baby growing hair, and so takes much longer) Bit by bit I lost my hair until there was very little left.
I had decided I was going to rock a bandana, but I also got a wig just in case. At first I wore the bandana but then became aware of 'the looks', you know the ones - sympathy on people's faces. Now, if you want a seat on the bus or a tram it came in handy, let me tell you. I had doors held open for me amongst other offers of help and people would step aside to let me pass. The problem was, I just wanted to feel like myself even though I was ill, I didn't want pity, that's just how I felt. I associated pity with weakness and I wanted to feel strong to fight this disease. So when I was going out I opted for the wig. I was never fully confident in it, but it's like getting dressed, your clothes are an extension of your personality - the same goes for your hair. Putting on a pretty dress, I didn't feel right without hair. I felt incomplete.
If you're watching the new series of Cold Feet the you might remember the poignant scene in which Faye Ripley's character, who has just completed her final round of chemotherapy, removed her wig and wiped off her make up eye brows. Of course it was meant to shock. We're seeing somebody at their most vulnerable, and this to me is how I felt.
This time when I was diagnosed I made the decision to use a cold cap. A cold cap is a special cap filled with gel which is kept in a freezer and worn on your head during the your chemotherapy treatment . It works by reducing the blood flow to your scalp, thus reducing or preventing hair loss. The best way to describe the feeling is that it's like the headache you get sometimes the you eat ice-cream.
So why didn't I use it the first time? It was offered but I heard a few opinions that if a cancer cell was lurking up there on the scalp, using the cap might prevent the chemo reaching it. I queried this again this time and was assured the NHS wouldn't offer it if they felt there was a risk. It had taken me the full three years for my hair to grow back to anywhere near the length it was before I lost it the last time. The thought of going through that again filled me with dread, after everything you're going through, cancer robs you of your hair -your identity as well, and after all, I'd done everything I could last time, including mastectomy, and it still came back, so I decided to to give it a try.
Four sessions in and I've still got my hair, though there's probably more than average comes out on the brush when I brush it. Does this make me wrong? Should I have lost it again? Am I not embracing baldness in a show of support for other sufferers? Weirdly I almost feel guilty. I remember the first time round when they told me I would lose my hair I remember thinking 'at least people will realise I've had proper cancer now!' Sadly it's true, this time although the stage of my cancer was worse, the impression I get is that people assume it's not as bad as I still have my hair, like myself and fellow sufferers should display baldness like some kind of cancer badge that labels us, unites and defines us.
The question of whether to go au-naturel is something which will likely resonate more with females than males generally speaking, though I'm not for a second suggesting losing your hair as a man is not traumatic. But you only have to scroll through Instagram to see photo after photo of women with long, thick luscious locks tumbling down their back or ample cleavage.
Now we all know that Instagram isn't necessarily a great refection of real life or indeed the truth, it's well known for photo-shopping the perfect picture, but also some of those featured may have had a little help beyond what Mother Nature gave them. Extensions are the norm nowadays to achieve that ultimate crowning glory, so imagine one day your hair starts falling out.
Rates of non cancer related baldness amongst women are now higher than many imagine. TV presenter Gail Porter is well known for her battle with alopecia, but recently American chat show host, Ricki Lake, has gone public about her battle with baldness for the past thirty years - something she described on social media as 'the quiet hell' - and that it has left her suicidal at times - plus the reasons behind it such as yo-yo dieting, stress, birth control and hair dye, and has posted images of herself bald, saying she's now going to be herself for 2020 rather than hiding behind a wig.
In 2017, Loose Women panelist Nadia Sawalha posted an emotional video in which she said she had lost a third of her hair, and her trademark curls were fake.
Little Mix star Jesy Nelson started losing hair around the age of 13. Speaking in 2012, she explained that being bullied may have played a part.
Shaved heads or short sharp cuts amongst women still have a stigma attached. For young beautiful women they can be seen as a powerful image but what if you're older, or its sudden or unexpected? The natural thought process jumps to either Britney Spears breakdown or the assumption they have cancer.
Like everything in life, I think it is, and should be down to personal choice, about how it makes you feel as a woman and how it affects your confidence. After all, there too is the choice of reconstruction after mastectomy or leaving your chest flat. It's purely cosmetic, but my personal choice was the reconstruction.
Do what feels right, at the end of the day, it's your life and only you that will live it.