Hair loss may announce your illness before you're ready.(RAINER HOLZ/CORBIS)Hair loss is one of the more-or-less guaranteed side effects of most types of chemotherapy treatment, and it can be rough. For some women, it's the worst part of the whole breast cancer experience.
"Losing my hair was the lowest point," remembers Hendy Dayton, 48, of San Francisco. Adds Karen Lynch, 40, a writer who blogs about breast cancer (www.pinkribbonreview.com) in Fairfield, Conn., "the uncertainty about losing your hair is a huge thing. I don't know why we're so wrapped up in our hair, but we are."
Other women aren't quite so hard hit. "I was OK with it; I had long hair for a long time and I just figured, let's try something new," reports Sharon O'Donnell, 51, of Hamilton Township, N.J., who cut off her hair and donated it to Locks of Love (www.locksoflove.org) and put a temporary tattoo on her bald head.
Losing your hair means you're sick
It's not just vanity that makes losing your crowning glory so emotional; it's going public, maybe before you're ready to. "It [made me] look sick to have no hair, even when I felt fine and was going through treatment and didn't have a whole lot of side effects," says Jessica, 33, a psychotherapist in St. Paul, Minn., who had cancer twice and lost her hair twice.
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"I was more upset that I was going to lose my hair again, and in two spots it's not growing back. That's huge for me because throughout my entire illness I haven't told any of my clients. I just don't want to be known as 'cancer girl.'"
Maybe you needed an excuse for a buzz cut?
As tough as hair loss can be, this may be one of few areas where it's possible to take back a little controlby shaving your head rather than waiting for clumps of hair to show up on your pillow and in the shower.
"I didn't want the trauma of watching my hair fall out," says Pam Tazioli, 54, of Seattle. "Somebody gave me the name of a beauty shop, a higher-end place where they'll set you up in a wig for free. I went in at the end of the day when the wig had arrived, brought in some cousins, we opened a bottle of wine, and they shaved my head."
Next Page: Trying a new look [ pagebreak ]New Yorker Kerry Apicella, 62, did the pre-emptive buzz cut too: "I sobbed and sobbed. It was at the place where I ordered the wig, so they were probably used to it. It was a good release. My daughter was there with me and she was very understanding when I cried. We just kind of talked about different wigs and hairstyles and pretty soon it was over with and I moved on."
Melissa Graves, 40, of College Station, Texas, was surprised by the physical pain of hair loss: "It hurts when your hair falls outthe closest thing is when your hair has been up in a ponytail all day; it's sore," she says. "I said, as soon as it starts thinning, we'll cut it off; this is one thing I can control." Graves ended up with a spiky blue Mohawk (she videotaped the outrageous cut-and-color), then went to Supercuts and had the rest of her hair cut off.
...or an excuse to try a new look
Many women opt to plan ahead and find a wig before they need one. That way you can match it to your own color, hair texture, and style, says Ramy Gafni, author of Ramy Gafni's Beauty Therapy: The Ultimate Guide to Looking and Feeling Great While Living With Cancer (M. Evans and Company, 2005) and a cancer survivor himself. "Get a wig that's longer than your hair so you can get it cut and styled in the style you want," he adds.
If a wig isn't for you, or you just want one for certain situations, there are plenty of other options if you want to cover your head hairpieces, hats, caps, knitted skullcaps, scarves, and turbans.
Victoria LaRosa, 57, of Warrenton, Va., liked to cycle through all the options. "I was bald from August until the beginning of April and I did everythingwigs, turbans, and I went without," recalls the owner of I'm Still Me, a post-mastectomy clothing boutique. "It's whatever you feel comfortable doing."
For inspiration and guidance, check out the free makeup and head coverings/wig-styling classes offered jointly by the American Cancer Society (www.cancer.org) and Look Good...Feel Better (www.lookgoodfeelbetter.org; 800-395-LOOK).