Chapter 5: Hair Loss – Breast Cancer

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To start at the beginning, read Chapter 1: Abby’s Crap News – AKA My “Journey” With Cancer

When it comes to losing one’s hair, there is a huge difference between theoretical and actual – and this may sound totally sexist, but I think it’s much worse if you’re a woman. (Except maybe if you’re Ozzy Osbourne or Russell Brand.)

Chemotherapy = hair loss. We all know this, right? But I sailed through my first two treatments with very little nausea and almost no other side effects, so to an outside observer I didn’t “look” like someone with cancer. Then a few days after my second treatment, having not lost a single strand of hair, I pulled on the back of my head as a little experiment. I was shocked to see that several strands came out quite easily.

When I reported this new development to my family, they were unperturbed; after all, except for my relatively new short haircut, I looked pretty much the same. Then one night, Henry (my 13-year-old) and I were sitting on the couch watching TV. He said, “So Mom, does your hair just come out when you pull it?” He was curious – exactly how hard do you have to pull? – and asked if he could try. I figured he’d yank a strand or two, so I shrugged and said sure. Suddenly, he was holding dozens of my hairs – I’d describe it as somewhere between a bouquet and a chunk.

I tried not to act freaked out – after all, this was inevitable, we may as well not pathologize the process, right? – but I was. It was horrifying.

Since then (and having now undergone three treatments so far), I have cried many, many tears over the loss of my hair. Usually I’d wait until I was in the presence of my husband, Chris, to completely fall apart; but my friends Sarah and Lisa have also witnessed my sad little breakdowns.

Chris tried to console me by pointing out that I have had almost no side effects and very little nausea. A long marriage is great in many ways, but especially this one: you don’t need to use a whole lot of words to explain yourself. In this case, I simply looked at Chris and what he read in my eyes conveyed his mistake immediately. (Keep this in mind, guys: rule one is simply validate your wife’s feelings.) He got it: I would rather throw up for sixteen weeks straight than lose my hair.

Sometimes I feel like I’m behaving in an infantile way, whining about my hair. After all, I have very treatable cancer, caught early, I will be fine. My hair will grow back. There are people in much, much worse circumstances than me. I haven’t thrown up once. I’m still doing Bikram yoga, for god’s sake. How much complaining am I really due?

But I can’t get around it: losing my hair is depressing. I feel unattractive. I’m wearing beanie hats now all the time – otherwise my head feels cold – and anytime I take one off or switch hats, there are dozens of hairs in it. Hair is everywhere: in my bathroom sink, on the floor, and when I wash my hair (which I do purposely rarely) it clogs up the drain. It’s disgusting, and I’m appalled that my own body is doing this, purging my head of hair.

Henry made the joke that eventually I’m going to look like Gollum from “The Hobbit,” with just two or three strands of hair plastered to my otherwise-bald scalp. It’s funny, I’ll admit.

When I’m feeling philosophical, I think about what this means for me as a woman and why it’s so hard. It goes to society’s ideals of beauty, certainly, for women; our femininity and more basically, our femaleness, are so tied into things like hair. It is difficult (if not impossible) to feel pretty when you are a (soon-to-be) bald woman. But as my friend Jill said, another way to think about it is this: the hair I’m losing now is my “cancer hair.” This is bad hair, poisoned hair, and I’m shedding it to make room for new, healthy, cancer-free hair. Not a bad way to think of it.

One more weird thing: I’m having a Pavlovian response, but instead of bells and salivating, I have hair loss and nausea. When I look at myself hatless in the mirror, or when I’m cleaning hair out of a beanie, it literally makes me feel queasy. The very sight of myself or my lost hair makes me sick. Calling Dr. Pavlov…

That’s probably enough whining for one column. The bottom line is: I’m doing well. Chemo has not (yet) kicked my ass physically, I feel strong and capable. Emotionally, I am supported in every way possible. I will not only survive this, but my (and my oncologist’s) plan is to beat this cancer into submission, to poison and shame it so it dare not show its face in my life ever again. And by the time summer rolls into my beautiful northern California town, my hair will already be growing back. I may even have progressed by then from Gollum to Richard Simmons.

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