Bald, Bold, Brave and Beautiful – What Losing My Hair Meant During My Cancer Treatment
“You will probably lose your hair in about two weeks,” the nurse casually remarked. I was furiously taking notes in the chemo class.
My husband, the forever optimist, said, “Wait and see, it might not happen.” But of course it did. Huge tufts of hair came out, first in the brush, then on my pillow, and then everywhere.
“It will grow back.” That is what everyone said. But when you have cancer, you are knocked headfirst into the present and an uncertain future.
“You don’t get it, what it means for a woman to lose her hair.”
Hair and My Personal Identity
I, myself, had never given a thought to the obvious. But looking back, hair was always an important part of my identity. In middle school, in 1964, I did all kinds of things to wear my hair in a way that ‘fit in.’ The look was straight hair with a big flip at the shoulder and bangs.
My hair was naturally curly. So, I would scotch tape it down to my forehead before bed. In the morning, I would iron it with a regular iron, careful not to burn it.
Then I would use orange juice cans to make the big flip for my shoulder. It usually lasted for a few hours and then the waves and curls would squiggle out.
For my Bat Mitzvah, as I was turning 13, I got to have my hair done in a beauty parlor. I asked for straight hair and a big flip at the shoulder.
After a morning under curlers and a hair dryer, I got home only to find the big flip turned into a tiny curl at my shoulder. I was in tears and carefully turned the curl under. No big flip for me.
Rescued by the Hippie Days
In tenth grade, I was liberated by the hippie days. Long wavy and curly hair was part of the burst into newfound freedom. I began wearing my hair naturally.
In my 20s, I settled on a short curly hairstyle that required limited effort and would last for the next 50 years. I came to love my curls. They became a big part of my identity.
Full disclosure, I did begin coloring my hair when I hit my 60s. A few highlights did not hurt.
Hair Loss Announced My Cancer to the World
Now, with my hair falling out all over the place, it became one more aspect of the great uncertain future that cancer heralds. I knew so many people who had survived cancer, including my father, a 20-year cancer survivor.
But, I also had lost two very close friends to cancer and my mother who died in six short weeks after diagnosis. My hair loss announced it to the world.
At first, a friend came over with some hats. However, these hats were either too hard or did not really cover much. My husband and I went to the mall, but nothing there was right either.
Back home, we sat at the computer and I bought a bunch of soft hats designed for cancer patients from a special headcover place. They looked good on the young models.
Then they arrived, and when I put them on all the hats seemed to scream, “I have cancer.” Even the wisps of hair that did not fall out and showed under these hats looked scraggly and terrible.
My Son Became My Barber
On one particularly bad night, shortly after a chemo treatment, not only did my stomach hurt and I had pains all over, but my scalp hurt as well. It was kind of like a headache, but right along the scalp.
In the morning, I went on the Internet and tried to find out what other people did. The answer was to shave the rest of the hair.
My son, David, who had lots of experience with shaving his head, became my barber. We already had all necessary implements at home, so off came the unruly bits of hair that were not evenly distributed anyway. Suddenly, my head was clean and free. It really did end the scalp pain.
Being Bald Gave a Sense of Liberation
I never planned to go out bald. It was my husband who said, “Why not?” The first trip was to the clinic where I needed a lab test, followed by our ritual trip to Starbucks.
There I was in my full bald glory, and surprisingly, nobody was staring at me. I did have an interesting affinity with all the balding men, however.
I felt a new sense of liberation. I went online and saw all the bald movie stars who did not have cancer. Why not? I pulled out my dangling earrings and tried a bit of makeup. Hey, this is actually kind of cool.
My Beautiful Bald Glory Was Exhilarating
The burst of energy when I allowed myself to be out in the world in my bald glory was exhilarating. I felt brave. I soon discovered that in addition to putting on sunscreen on my head, I would still need hats to keep from getting sunburn. Also, sometimes it is cold.
Yet, I learned that the wind swishing along the sides of my head felt great. Believe me, it is still a bit scary. I have to watch for comments by well-intentioned folks, mostly those who were surprised to see me like this.
“You look like a female Buddhist monk” hit me a bit strange. Also, one friend said I looked “spry.” That sounded like a compliment to an 80-year-old. In the long run, those comments do not matter.
It is the bold act that makes it beautiful – smiling and looking life right in the eye. I put long dangling earrings on my mother’s day list. Let’s live this one up.
If you have had to go through a cancer treatment that resulted in hair loss, how did you cope? How do you feel when you see a woman who is bald and likely dealing with cancer treatments? Please share your stories below.
Becki Cohn-Vargas, Ed.D works as an independent consultant to schools and organizations with over 35 years as a teacher, principal, curriculum director, and superintendent in public education in California. With Dr. Dorothy Steele, she co-authored the book, Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn. Becki and her husband Rito are also working to develop an environmental research center on their private reserve in the Nicaraguan rain forest. They live in El Sobrante, California, and have three adult children.