I didn’t expect to have chemo – I’d found the lump early so the doctor told me it would most likely be a course of radiotherapy after the operation. When the news came that it was an aggressive cancer, and that I was to have chemo over the course of five months, I was gutted – mostly because I would probably lose my hair.After receiving my initial diagnosis I’d deliberately left my hair long. In a strange sort of way I was almost willing it not to happen, trying to subliminally convince my doctor that chemo wouldn’t be necessary.
Why was it so painful? For me it was a symbol of my strength, health and vitality. The shock of possibly losing it was heartbreaking.
The doctor told me that a cold cap during chemo sometimes worked in preventing hair loss. As I moved closer to my first chemo appointment, I knew I needed to prepare myself which meant a short haircut. The cold cap needed to have contact with the head in order to work, and also if my hair was to fall out, then it would be easier to deal with. Going to the local hairdresser just seemed too difficult as I imagined staring at myself in the mirror sobbing as long strands of my auburn hair fell to the floor.
Then one of those little miracles happened, which seem to happen all the time when you’re going through a traumatic experience – ‘out of the blue’ our neighbour mentioned to my husband that she was an ex-hairdresser. I was relieved to be able to have my hair cut in the privacy of my bathroom. When Fiona came round the following day, I deliberately chose a seat which wouldn’t allow me to see my reflection, I just trusted her to do her job. I closed my eyes so I couldn’t see my hair fall, and then after it was all over, I looked at myself in the mirror, and it wasn’t too bad. That was the easy part though.
The first time I went to hospital for chemotherapy the nurses came in every fifteen minutes with a cold cap – a soft helmet which is kept in the freezer – to try and paralyse the hair follicles I presume. Unfortunately the cap didn’t work, it just gave me a excruciating headache – after three sessions my hair began to fall out….
My hair already seemed thinner, and then I began to notice hair on my pillow, the kitchen table, the sofa….wherever I sat really It was also extremely itchy, as if a rash had developed on my skull. A couple of days later,when I put my hand on my head, the hair would come out in handfuls. I found this so distressing, more than anything it was the feeling of hopelessness, and the lack of control. One morning I woke up and decided it needed to be shaved off.
Luckily my good friend Andrea was staying with us during this time. I asked her that morning if she would do me the honour, but knew it was a big ask. Andrea was a doctor, so immensely practical, but also extremely kind and sensitive. I had thought of asking my husband to do it, but I think we would have both been too upset.
Sitting in the bathroom, I put my head in her hands, literally and metaphorically. She first cut it as short as possible with scissors and then started to shave it, gently and methodically. Tears rolled down my cheeks, as I had flashes of negative images of Jewish people having their heads shaved in Nazi Germany or women shamed after the war being paraded through the streets. I needed to take my power back, rather than be a victim so I tried to change my vision. I started to think of Buddhist monks or strong female actresses such as Sigourney Weaver who had shaved their heads for a film role. This somehow made me feel more powerful.
After it was shaved, I put a soft cotton/silk cap on my skull, but wouldn’t actually look at my head for at least a week. I then needed to decide how to cover my head for the outside world, but that’s another story.