Patient Story: Losing My Hair (But, Not My Mind!)
One year ago, I had no hair. I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. It was detected very early and I had a good prognosis. My treatment plan was surgery, followed by chemotherapy, then finish with radiation. My first infusion of chemo was on May 18. By mid-June, I was bald. Alopecia is the term for this very visible side effect of certain chemo drugs.
Yes, it was upsetting! Alopecia. And I was warned about it!
In view of everything else that was happening to me, losing my hair was actually the least of it. But it was SO symbolic. I cried for a few days. My dear husband, who has been shaving his head for quite some time now, merely commented – “It’s only temporary.”
OK. Hypothetically that’s true. And I was ready to deal with it. I had options. I was determined that my life would be as normal as it could be. I would walk every day, make dinner every day; basically; I would engage in a normal routine. It never occurred to me that I was out sick; to me, I was out getting healthy. Get over it already.
Before I started the chemo, two of my closest friends dragged me to a wig shop. They made it fun. We tried on silly wigs: straight hair, curly hair, different lengths. We laughed. Of course, they are my best critics after myself, so I left it up to them. We (they, really) chose a wig very close to my hair color…well, my highlighted color, a shorter length with a little flip on the ends. And very straight. You see, my hair is curly.
So, I have the wig. It was quite successful. Most people thought I had merely straightened my hair. Some never noticed – or figured out what was different. Of course, every time I looked in the mirror, I didn’t recognize my image. It was surreal.
However, it was summer and the wig was hot! So not exactly a daily option or the appropriate head gear for my power walks or hitting tennis balls, or playing golf. Remember, I’m pursuing a healthy path.
I had caps of different colors, each one could be complimented with a different headband or scarf/wrap. Something would be sure to go with my wardrobe of the day! Yes, I dressed every day. No sweats or daytime PJs for me.
Since it was summer, I was concerned about sunburn. My head had always been covered by a very thick mass of curls. So, there is a hat collection, too. With nice wide brims. One with a bright scarf attached so it would stay secure in the wind. Even a baseball cap style with a scarf to tie; perfect for wearing out on the golf course.
Really, by the time I was through the chemo treatment and nearing the end of the radiation course, I had the routine down. I could flip on that wig, tie on the scarf, or jauntily adjust the hat in mere seconds. So easy.
But I started to wonder: what if I was in that low percentage with permanent hair loss? I kept remembering my husband’s consoling words from the beginning. It’s only temporary. It had to be.
With two weeks of radiation to complete, I was already physically stronger and easily walking 3-4 miles each day. I was in the Steps To Wellness program, working with weights and on my flexibility. My taste buds were starting to return. My color was great. I looked healthy. But, I didn’t dare look at my head.
Then, on one visit, my radiation oncologist peered at me a little closer than usual and announced that my hair was growing back. She could see the start of it. I could’ve hugged her; in fact, I probably did. In spite of all other signs and improving symptoms, I felt this was my first true confirmation that I was healing!
One year later, I have a cap of very curly hair – if I pull on it, there are about 3 inches! The curls returned and the color is a bit darker than before. I passed on some of my collection to the oncology clinic (there are donation baskets placed around). I hope someone else will find good use of the caps and scarves and feel great about their appearance.
Sonja Fuller is a young middle-aged woman living and laughing every day in Burlington, Vermont. Her family and friends continue to be the most important people in her life, and she is grateful to have reconnected with many of them over the past year. Her activity has expanded from walking to include tennis and golf and she is also relieved her taste buds have returned.