Chapter 9 – Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.
– Allen Saunders

When I was first diagnosed in January 2007 I asked the consultant ‘Am I going to lose my hair?’ At that stage I was really worried about how the kids would feel about me having no hair. I suppose I was worried that they might be frightened – especially our little boy who was just two and a half.

Looking back now, to be honest, the hair loss is really just a minor detail – I don’t mean to trivialise it, but for me it certainly was a minor detail when you consider all the other MAJOR things that happened.

Brenda before illness
Brenda before cancer

When I was diagnosed I had very long, very thick mousey brown straight hair. My hair used to take me ages to wash and dry because it was so thick. It was my crowning glory and I always felt good when my hair looked good. A few weeks after I was diagnosed I asked my Mum to cut my hair to shoulder length, partly because it was hard for me to manage and getting tangled all the time, but also because I was preparing myself and my family for losing it entirely.

Because my treatment was oral chemo in tablet form from January to April 2007, I was pretty lucky in that my hair just thinned a lot, but didn’t fall out.

Just before I was due to have the first dose of liquid chemo in May 2007, I went to the hairdressers and asked them to cut it even shorter than my Mum had. Again, I was anxious to prepare those closest to me for what was coming. I remember sitting in the chair at the hairdressers and looking at myself in all the mirrors thinking ‘this will be the last visit you will be paying to the hairdressers for a while’. The stylist seemed anxious about cutting it too short and she was being really thorough in explaining to me how short it would be and that it was going to be a big change. I told her to go for it because I was going to lose my hair anyway. She was a bit taken aback but she seemed also to take extra care and extra time with me which was nice.

Within two days of that first dose of liquid chemo  my hair started to come out. It was a gradual thing – I was still in hospital and I was aware of there being a few more hairs left on the pillow each morning that I sat up in bed.

BD and Cathal
Cathal and me in October 2006 (Before Cancer)

I decided to get fitted for a wig. They recommend that you avail of this service while you still have your hair as it gives them a chance to match a wig as closely as possibly to your real hair – colour, texture and style. While I was still in hospital I arranged for a lady from the wig company to come and see me in the hospital. I had asked them to bring loads of different lengths and styles, and I was a bit disappointed when the lady arrived with only a handful of short haired wigs! Where were the long blonde wig and the in your face red curly bombshell wig. Oh well that would have to wait for another day!

The lady was quite nice – a bit too sombre which didn’t sit very well with me. I remember she said to me ‘you are getting this wig probably for your own self esteem or for your husband’. Maybe that was her experience with others but I very quickly corrected her and said ‘I am not getting the wig for my husband or for my self esteem’. I remember being a bit annoyed at her assuming that I was getting a wig because I would have low self esteem without one. I am confident and secure in who I am regardless of what my hair looks like!

I tried on a couple of the wigs and we more of less found one that was very close to my own hair. There was a knack to putting it on which I practised a few times. It looked very strange, partly because I still had my own hair, but there was something not quite right about the wig! We settled on a style of wig but I asked her to hold off ordering it for me as there was something sort of niggling at the back of my mind.

I was laughing during the whole process – it was just absurd to be sitting up in a hospital bed on a weekday, trying on wigs in my pajamas! I don’t think she knew what to make of me really.

She left and one of the nurses came in. I expect she was hovering outside, and came in to make sure that I was okay. I was.

In the end I decided not to go for a wig. It just never felt right for me and when the wig lady told me the following:

  • You shouldn’t wear it when you are cooking
  • You shouldn’t wear it when you are unloading the dishwasher
  • You shouldn’t wear it when you are leaning over the hob cooking things
  • You shouldn’t wear it near steam!

I just thought – when can I wear it? So I decided not to bother.

The hair loss happened quite gradually at first. My Mam told me that when she vacuumed the house that the vacuum bag was full of my hair.

I was sitting on the couch one day and my husband happened to be standing over me and he said ‘Do you know that you have a bald patch right on the top of your head?’ I remember putting my hand up and feeling the smooth, almost egg like quality to the patch. I couldn’t see it no matter how I angled myself at the mirror. I almost broke my neck trying to get a look at it. So I got my husband to take a picture of it on his mobile phone so as I could see it. I got a shock when I saw the snowy white bald patch.

That was when I realised that within a matter of days or maybe a week that my hair would be gone. It was limp and lifeless really. I remember one day I was driving along in the car with the windows open. All of a sudden I was aware of something going out the window – it was clumps of my hair! I was literally shedding all over the place like a dog or a cat renewing their coat!

One of the things I wasn’t prepared for was how tender and sore my head was  once my hair started to go. It was painful to touch sometimes and I suppose that was the hair breaking away underneath the scalp.

I had heard that a lot of people shaved their hair but I wasn’t sure if I would be able to do that.

Then something happened of an average Thursday evening in June which made me realise my time had come to just get rid of it.

Cathal came over to me with a large chunk of hair and almost tried to put it back onto my head saying ‘there you go Mammy’. It was at that moment that I decided I had enough of shedding and bald patches. When I was on my own the next day in the house I went for it. I got my husband’s hair trimmer, a scissors and I cut the last of the long pieces of hair off. Then I shaved the rest. I was afraid to look in the mirror when I was doing it so I sort of felt my way around with the trimmer and the scissors.

When I felt that all the hair was gone and I was suitably egg like, I plugged in the vacuum cleaner and gave my head the once over for good measure! If anyone had seen me they would have thought I was very strange indeed.

I thought I would cry as I was cutting and shaving, but I didn’t.

I psyched myself up to look in the mirror – my heart was literally hammering away in my chest.

I thought I would cry when I saw myself for the first time, but I didn’t.

I opened my eyes and looked at myself in the mirror. While it was obviously very shocking, it didn’t actually look that bad. I had wondered what my head would look like – would there be scars from childhood accidents or from chicken pox? It’s funny what goes through your mind at a time like that. I had no make up and no ear rings on so I was literally au natural!

I stood in front of the mirror for a long time – trying to see myself from different angles. I was kind of like Sigourney Weaver from Aliens or a Sinead O’Connor. I suppose those ladies have paved the way for us baldies in recent years so it wasn’t like I hadn’t seen a bald woman before!

There it was I had lost my hair and I was going to be without it for a good few months, so I would have to just accept it and move on.

I collected my daughter from school and on the way home I sort of joked with her about what I had done. We do this sketch thing together from Catherine Tate ‘ you won’t believe what I’ve done’ She said in character ‘what ‘ave you done’ I said ‘I’ve gone and shaved off all my hair’. She immediately fell out of character and her eyes were like saucers. Really she said. Yes I said. Can I see it, she asked. I told her I would show her when we got home.

We arrived home and she said ‘show me’, so I did. She kind of gasped and said very quickly you don’t actually look that bad Mammy. Then she said in a kind of giggly voice – what’s daddy going to say?

I was thinking that myself. My husband and I had chatted about my hair loss and he had sounded kind of shocked when he noticed the bald patch and commented ‘it’s coming out quite quickly’. I was very worried about how he would react.

Cathal (our little boy) was dropped home and we didn’t show him. I had a bandana on which he immediately noticed. Even though he was tiny he always noticed if I wore something new or if I did something different with my hair. He told me to take the hat off. I told him that Mammy had to get something done with her hair, but that it would come back. I was very nervous about showing him. He had a habit of sitting behind me when we watched tv and ‘brushing out’ my hair. We had obviously prepared both of the kids for the hair loss; well as much as we could in the case of our Cathal as he was only 2 and a half and it’s a big thing for him to absorb.  I think I was most worried about how he would react. I showed him and he looked at me and just said ‘put your hat back on’. That was it, no tears, no drama.

My husband arrived home and my heart was racing – I was really nervous. It was like the butterflies you get when you are on a first date. It was silly really. I was going to talk him into seeing me gradually but of course the minute he came in the door Emma shouts ‘WAIT UNTIL YOU SEE MAMMY’S HAIR!’. So much for softly, softly.  I showed him and I know he was very shocked but he held it together.

I decided not to go for a wig at all. I had the bandanas and I had a few hats including a peeked hat with a kind of skirt at the back that I found in Marks and Spencers. One of the things I found was that there is not really a great choice of bandana styles and colours so I took to the internet and I found a sportswear company called BUFFWEAR which has these fantastic head pieces in every colour and design you could wish for. The bandanas that I had bought never sat right, they were almost like wearing a nappy on your head – thick and bulky. What I was looking for was something slimline made of lycra and I found them at buffwear. These are like a tube of material that you can wear in any number of ways – they are fantastic. I ordered a black one, a pink combat one and one with kind of reds and browns with the word STOP all over it. I ordered them from the UK on Friday and they arrived on the following Monday. They were brilliant and I wore them to within an inch of their lives once they arrived. They sat snug to your head so you felt almost like you had hair and they were really stylish and easy to wash. I never used the bandanas after that really just the peaked hat in the sun, a woolly hat when my head was cold and then the bandanas.

It’s amazing how quickly being bald just became normal for me and everyone in the house. Initially I would wear the bandana around the kids and my husband but after a few days, if I didn’t feel like wearing it in the house, I didn’t. I was lucky in that I lost my hair in June, just as it was getting warm so I didn’t have to worry too much about the cold.

The normality of it all came into sharp focus when a couple of days after my hair was gone – our little boy Cathal asked me could he brush my hair! My hubby and I looked at each other as if to say – how do you deal with this one. I said he could, handed him the brush and he sat behind me brushing my head. It was extraordinary really. Kids seem to always see the bigger picture of you as you are and not see the thing that is wrong with you. As I said, it was normal for him and for all of us in a very short space of time.

The hardest part of losing my hair was that it was the in your face, physical, every day reminder to me and to everyone around me that I was seriously ill. I know that it was tough on my family to be reminded all the time. I know it must have been hard for my husband to wake up each morning and to see my bald head on the pillow. I know that it was hard for the kids, especially my daughter to see me without my hair. Up to that point I didn’t look like someone who was battling a serious illness. I had no physical signs that I was sick and to the person on the street I was fit and healthy.

Emma came to me one day and asked me for a photo of me with hair. I gave her one and she explained that she needed to remember what I looked like when I was well and to be able to see what I would look like when I was better! That was tough but it was something she needed to do.

I remember the first time my sister Rachel saw me without hair.

She had come down for the weekend and I met her and showed her and she said “You have a very small head – have you every noticed that before?.” How would I notice that before? It’s not like I get fitted for a hat or a new bonnet every week and the local shop has my head size in their Victorian filing cabinet. It was very funny.

People reacted in different ways. One woman standing behind me in the grocery line in Dunnes obviously recognised why I was wearing what I was wearing and she came up and wished me well and asked  me my first name – she told me she would pray for me. It was strange but lovely. Another day when my hair had started to come back and I had just begun to go out with out any head gear, a little boy turned to his mam and said ‘mammy is that a man or a woman’. His mother was mortified and apologised and I told her not to worry about it.

Brenda getting used to no hair
First time going out without a hat in September 2007.

Since I have recovered I too find that I have  a sixth sense and I know immediately by looking at what someone is wearing on their head that they are recovering from chemo.

As I said, losing my hair was something that I was very concerned about but having gone through it and on the grand scale of things, it’s nothing really. Maybe that’s just me. Of course it’s traumatic to lose something that is part and parcel of who you are and what you look like but it was a small part of a big puzzle with much more serious pieces to it.

On the plus side I saved a fortune on visits to the hairdresser, shampoos and conditioners as well as all sorts of grooming materials.

Because of course it’s not just the hair on your head that you lose –I lost my hair from everywhere except my eyebrows. They thinned but they stayed and I had gone to the trouble of buying an eyebrow pencil

I saved a fortune on waxing and shaving and plucking too.

I was bald – a real egg head from the beginning of June until the beginning of September. In September my hair started to come back and by the end of September I no longer wore my bandanas. The weather had turned cold and I did miss terribly my long hair especially as it used to keep my neck warm. I would wear a woolly hat when I went out as my head would freeze otherwise. At that stage I had a wonderful collection of hats and matching scarves, one for every occasion.

My hair came back thick and strong and by Christmas 2007 I had a nice crop of short tight hair. It was very in fashion actually.

I wore glasses and I think having face furniture like that and big earrings took the bare look of me when I was bald and when I had very short hair.

For a while it was probably obvious to people that I had a problem with my hair – I remember getting funny looks in a shop one day from the manager who I think thought I could be a trouble maker – I’m sure he was looking for tattoos on me!!!!!

Every one’s hair growth and recovery is different. I am lucky because my hair grows quite quickly and it has come back thick as ever – but with a curly bounce to it which I didn’t have before. At the moment I am at the in between stage of having nether long or short hair.

I honestly never cried or felt like crying about my hair and that did surprise me. My daughter and I joked about it a lot. I would be brushing out her hair and she would swish it and I would ask her could I borrow some for the day and pretend to pull her hair as I was jealous of it.  It is tough for kids but it’s also something that once it’s happened to someone they know, they will never feel awkward or afraid about something like that in the future. Emma came to me one day and she said, you know if I ever lose my hair I know now that I will manage it because you did it Mammy.

What I would say to people who are facing into losing their hair is take your time, think about the options. A wig just wasn’t for me, I never felt comfortable and I just couldn’t be doing with all the minding that comes with a wig. Decide what you want and don’t just get something for the sake of it. Yes of course you have to be mindful of children, but they are amazing, so resilient and all they see when they look at you is Mammy or Daddy, who they love, and not a stranger with a bald head! It may take a few days or longer for people around you to adjust, but they will and you shouldn’t feel that you have to wear something for someone else.

I wrote a short story inspired by my hair loss which was recorded for an anthology of writing by Cill Dara Writers Circle. If you would like to listen to it you can do so here.

Now I am off to detangle my hair which is as long and tangly as it has ever been.

B xxx

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