5 Things Nobody Tells You About Chemo-Induced Hair Loss
“Will I lose my hair?” – A pretty common question for those starting chemotherapy. I knew the answer would most likely be yes, but my stomach still dropped when my oncologist confirmed that I would. From her tone, I realized that hair loss was the least of my worries and just something I’d have to get through. I am someone who always plays it safe in life. I never even dyed my hair before, and suddenly I was about to have none.
Here are 5 things that nobody told me about chemo-induced hair loss.
1. You don’t just lose the hair on your head.
Never mind feeling sick and weak from chemotherapy, but waiting for your hair to fall out can be torturous. Some types of chemo don’t cause any hair loss. Mine did, but I still was in denial and hoped I wouldn’t lose it. The first signs of hair loss were not from the hair on my head, but the hairs that were on my tissue when I blew my nose. Or the eyelashes that fell out when I rubbed my eyes in the morning. All of the hair on your body is there to protect you and when you lose it, and I mean lose ALL of it, you notice how much you need it. My nose felt so strange when it would run and there was nothing in there to slow it down. Things would go into my eyes more often without eyebrows.
2. It can feel uncomfortable when it falls out.
Large clumps would fall off into my hands as I washed my hair in the shower, and I felt guilty every time. I knew I couldn’t stop it from falling out, but still wished I could stop it. Eventually, my scalp would tingle and the roots felt stiff like hay. I told my mom that I felt that the hair was no longer mine and knew that it would fall out soon. When the hair fell off the top of my head first, I wore hats instead of shaving my head to give the illusion that I still had a full head of hair.
3. You’ll need to find ways to keep your bald head cool/warm.
It was summer when I was completely bald and I bought a gorgeous, expensive wig that I only wore a few times. My head would get so hot, causing the rest of me to sweat. I had such a low tolerance for discomfort that I stopped wearing it. I just couldn’t care what people would think. At night, I had the opposite problem. My head would feel cold and I bought some chemo sleep caps to keep my head warm at night.
4. Your hair is a bigger part of your identity than you realize.
As I looked in the mirror with no hair on my head, no eyelashes, and no eyebrows, I felt like I was looking at a stranger. I became more spiritual and religious as parts of my physical body were literally disappearing. I started to think there really must be more to this life since I was still me on the inside. As a woman, I also couldn’t help but feel less beautiful. One of the worst things said to me was when my at-home nurse looked at my baby and said, “Soon she’ll have more hair than you.” Eventually, I embraced my short haircut. I started receiving compliments about how I could totally pull off a short hairstyle, but I resented hearing that since it wasn’t my choice.
5. It may or may not grow back differently.
Everyone told me my hair would never be the same, but how did they really know? When it grew back and was still so short, it was very curly. My hair was always wavy/curly, but I would often straighten it. I had a feeling it wouldn’t be that different after all. Sure enough, it was back to normal after it grew longer. The color was back to normal, too. I felt like myself again. There are plenty of other survivors whose hair did change after treatment, whether it was the color or texture. You never know how the chemo will affect you.
My advice to those losing their hair due to chemo:
Tune out the “it’ll grow back” and the “it’s only hair” comments, because there will be a LOT. Remember that sometimes people are dismissive, but some just don’t know what to say and they think they are saying things that will make you feel supported. Only those who go through this process will truly understand it. Yes, surviving cancer should be your top priority. Yes, there are many other important things to worry about like scans, biopsies, and blood and platelet transfusions, but don’t let that make you feel that losing your hair is trivial. It’s a necessary step to help you reach remission, but it can tear you apart. Deal with it the best you can when it’s happening. With each strand that grows back, may you become a little healthier, gain a little more confidence, and become a new and improved version of yourself.
Photo courtesy of author.