People dealing with cancer experience all kinds of feelings about losing, and re-growing, their hair during treatment. While everyone’s reaction is uniquely their own, there are some feelings and thoughts that are fairly common. Here are three of the most common reactions:
Defined as a Cancer Patient
Susan lost her hair during a stem cell transplant for leukemia. What bothered her the most about her hair loss was the way people would look at her if she did not cover her head with a hat, wig, or scarf. “Some people stare at me. They seem to be confused, like they are trying to decide if they should ask what happened. Other people look at me with pity, they immediately know I am a cancer patient and feel sorry for me. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me, it makes me feel like more of a patient than a person.” Because of her concern about people’s reactions, Susan wore a wig all day, and sometimes all night if she was staying over with friends, even if it meant her head was hot and itchy. “I don’t want to be different or abnormal. I don’t want to be known only as a cancer patient.” Susan not only had to deal with chemotherapy and hair loss, but also other people’s reaction to her hair loss. “If they see my bald head, then they want to talk about someone they know who has cancer. I can’t get a break from cancer because my bald head!”
Grief & Guilt
Jill was in the early phase of chemotherapy for ovarian cancer when she began to lose her hair. She felt very anxious as clumps came out, especially in the shower. Taking showers and washing her hair had always been a stress reliever for Jill in the past. In order to avoid shedding, she had her friend shave her head. Unfortunately the bare skin on her bald head was so sensitive that the water from the shower felt like stones pelting her in the head. And now that she was no longer using her favorite lavender shampoo, the relaxed feeling of she used to get from showering was gone. “Cancer has even ruined the pleasure I had in taking a shower!” Jill not only had lost her hair, but also the pleasure in taking care of her hair in the shower. The sadness she felt was grief because of the losses. The grief was then complicated by guilt: “I know I should be grateful to be alive, and I should focus on the fact that my treatment is working, not my hair or washing it! I feel guilty for caring so much about my showers.”
Brian looked forward to being his “normal self” again after treatment for melanoma. While he was able to slowly get back into physical shape so he could hike and bike again as he had before cancer, what Brian could not get back was his pre-cancer hair. Before cancer Brian had thick, dark brown hair. The medicine Brian took to beat melanoma had turned his hair bright white. “I feel like an old man! And every time I look in the mirror this white hair reminds me of cancer. This post-cancer white hair is just not me!”
Hair loss and regrowth during cancer treatment can be a significant emotional challenge. For most people, appearance is linked up with how we see ourselves, our identity. So when your appearance (hair) changes because of cancer treatment, there is the potential to generate some fairly intense emotions.
As with any grieving process because of a loss, working through your grief about hair loss will take time. Give yourself permission to have feelings about the changes in your hair, acknowledge the loss, but then begin to work on thinking about yourself in a more helpful way.
Your new look may not feel “normal,” and you may not immediately like it, but remind yourself that the changes are evidence of your strength. You are battling cancer, you are going through difficult treatment, and the hair change is a visible sign that you are doing your best to be well. Put some time and energy into thinking about and practicing self-care routines that help you feel good about your appearance. Visit a salon, barber, stylist, spa or make-up artist. Focus on nutrition and exercise. Listen to music. Be outdoors. Whatever makes you feel good.
For Jill, developing a new relaxation routine was key to managing her grief and guilt: she traded showers for gentle yoga. Susan decided she would share her cancer story with good friends through a blog (thus owning her cancer experience but not being defined by it), and she started responding to strangers’ “pity looks” with a short but sweet response, “yeah, I’m fine now, thanks” and then would move on with her day. Brian decided to embrace his post-cancer white hair with humor, and posted a picture of himself on social media with the title “Young, fit Santa.”
Think about what may work for you, and put the plan into place. The plan will help you manage the emotions of dealing with hair loss and regrowth in your cancer journey.