Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Hairy Truth: What I Learned about Going Bald after Chemotherapy for Cancer

These days, doctors pretty much know which types of chemotherapy will leave you bald and which do not. But realizing you are going to have to say goodbye to your tresses doesn’t make it any easier.

I was feeling pretty secure when 15 months of strong chemotherapy left my hair intact. But the new drug cocktail enlisted to battle my returning cancer immediately took its toll. Within two weeks my hair was history.

After first round of chemo


I know, I know, the main thing I should have been concentrating on was getting better; killing those cancer cells so I could lengthen my life. And I was. But it was hard not to think about my bald head. Because it was there, every day... for months.

And while my sweet friends told me I had a good head for baldness, I disagreed. When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t see a gorgeous shiny smooth head like Charles Barkley’s. There was a four-inch scar at the front of my head. Next to it were many lumps from the brain biopsy performed to identify the source of my mysterious illness, which turned out to be lymphoma.

Here a few things I wish I had known about losing your hair after chemotherapy:

Get rid of it once the fallout has begun. 

I prolonged this process and wasted money, time and sweep-up efforts.
About a week after I began my second round of chemo treatments, I noticed hair coming out in my hands.

Two weeks after second chemo
So I made an appointment with my hair stylist to get it cut into what I called my Jamie Lee Curtis look. As the hairdresser was trimming, he found more tufts coming out.

“Yikes,” I said. But I should have said, “Shave it all off.”

For about a week, I resembled a hairy version of Pig-Pen, the Peanuts character who always gave off a cloud of dust. My Jamie Lee tresses were falling out everywhere: the floor, pillow, my bed and bathroom sink. It was gross.

So I implored my husband to trim my head with an electric razor. Gone was the choppy look but my hair was still visible and spotty. Not too attractive. And it was still messy.
The next time we went to a medical appointment, I made a detour to a walk-in haircut place and asked for a complete shave. 

Shop online or at cancer specialty stores for attractive caps and scarves.

I wore a baseball cap right after being shaved bald, but I was ill-prepared for the challenges of covering my head. I learned to love the feel and convenience of cotton caps: they didn’t move around or cut into my head when I was lying down (which was a lot). 

I found these at my hospital’s gift shop devoted to cancer patients. It had the best selection of caps and beautiful scarves to wear on my head. Another specialty shop where I made more purchases was near a local hospital, featuring wigs, scarves and caps for cancer patients.

I’ve since learned that you can save money (and energy) and get a wider selection from online sites. An internet search for cancer hats will bring you to sites like Hats for YouTopsy Turban and Hats with Heart that offer plenty of styles, colors and fabrics.

I did not opt for a wig. Everyone told me they were hot and itchy and I didn’t really have any place to go where a comfortable cap or cute scarf would not suffice.

It will be months after you stop your chemo before your hair will grow to a length where you feel confident not wearing a hat. 

Hair grows back. I was told that over and over by my doctors.
But I wanted to know one thing: When?

Bald with cute fall scarf
After my second round of chemo, in preparation for my stem cell transplant, I had to have total-body irradiation twice a day for four days. The radiologist had told me the treatment would make me lose myhair

“I’ve already lost it,” I told him, pointing to my stylish cotton cap.

No, he said, ALL of it.

And I did.

When the only hair on my body was one eyebrow on the left side and two on the right, I looked weird but didn’t cut them. Three hairs were something.

I wondered when the rest were coming back.

After my bone marrow transplant was successful, I made frequent visits back to the doctor to check on my progress.

Fortunately, I was progressing slowly. The mouth sores were fading. My immune system was getting back to normal. But I asked the doctor when my hair would start coming in.

“It’ll grow back,” he said. 

“I know,” I said. “But when?”

He couldn’t say. Nor could a second doctor I asked. I told a nurse I wanted to know specifically because I wondered if I should invest in some scarves or hats in fall/winter colors. My summer palette wouldn’t work in the cooler months.

Yes, she said, buy cold-month colors.

And so I did, purchasing a few more scarves in gorgeous fall prints and even a red fleece cap that I wore for Christmas.

For the record, it was two months after my last chemotherapy session that I noticed teensy hairs coming out of my head. In another month, I proudly took off my Christmas hat at the family gathering to show them off. They were almost imperceptible. I had to stand in the sunlight and you had to look at a certain angle and maybe rub my head and then you could see them.

I was elated. It was a visible sign of new life. 

Six weeks later, I went capless at a public gathering, my neighbor’s Super Bowl party. And it was another few months before I lost the hats entirely.

Your “new” hair, different from your old hair, can be treated with the miracle of beauty products.

Heavy on the salt
Everyone told me my post-cancer hair might be a different texture or color. Happy to have my hair back, I found the various states amusing.  Originally a dark brown with some gray, my new hair grew in a color I called salt and pepper, heavy on the salt. 

My new eyebrows and lashes had the same color scheme. Major tip to women facing the same thing: We all know about mascara for eyelashes, but there is a fabulous invention called eyebrow mascara. Anastasia  and Blinc are brands that help my Santa brows disappear.

Matt & Laura Christmas 2012
The texture of my hair changed month to month. It was naturally curly my whole life. It first came back as sort of thick and kinky. I called it my mini-fro.  Then all the kinks relaxed and it was straight as can be. Now, nearly five years after my last chemo treatment, it is close to the texture and curl that it used to have. And miraculously (wink-wink) it's close to its original color.


  1. I am going to be having chemo in July and this has really helped me. Thanks, Janis

    1. Janis
      So pleased to have helped you! Good luck.