Posts Tagged ‘Hair loss’

My hair is nearly gone now but I’ve still got hair on the brain. I was seeking salvation in music and for some reason I got stuck on songs about hair so I started putting together a little farewell compilation, my coiffure concerto. More on that later.

Bad Hair Days

Since losing my hair I’ve realised it’s significance, or lack of it, is more than skin deep.

This really hit me with the headscarf experiment. I was reluctant to wear a headscarf, because for me they identify you as someone who is sick. You might as well have a big light on your head saying ‘I HAVE CANCER‘. My not very scientific research, which involved wearing a headscarf for around a week, verified this. People give you ‘the pity look’ and children eye you suspiciously. Women look odd with no hair and a headscarf does nothing to disguise this.

I should add that my brief dalliance with headscarves was heavily influenced by the fact that they just don’t suit me. I look like a sausage in a blanket.

Losing my hair has made me painfully aware how inextricably linked our hair is with our identity, in particular our femininity. From the moment we pop out, our fuzzy little heads are filled with myths, legends and fairy-tales of beautiful long-haired maidens overcoming adversity and inevitably being saved by a valiant prince: you never hear about short-haired princesses being rescued in fairy-tales. From lady Godiva & Rapunzel to modern-day hair royalty such as Jennifer Aniston and Sarah Jessica Parker, having good hair gets you places. They’d all be nothing without their glorious manes.

Historically a shaven head has always had meaning, and in the case of women this is largely negative. From biblical times head shaving has been used as a tool of female oppression and has been used in countless wars as a punishment against women in the form of humiliation and de-sexualisation. Women who choose to shave their heads, or who lose their hair through illness are often deemed as mad, bad or dangerous. Britney Spears, Sinead O’Connor and Gail Porter have all been labelled as such.

Whilst fairy-tales are full of long-haired maidens waiting to be rescued or saved, Ellen Ripley‘s character in Alien turns this on its shaven head. As well as being one of the coolest film characters of all  time she’s the ultimate feminist icon. She’s gutsy, strong and maternal and doesn’t rely on men to rescue or save her. She kicks ass, the perfect role model for women of all hair lengths.

Hair today, gone tomorrow

Baldness is something many men have to contend with in their lifetime but, when men go bald, they usually have a few years to get used to the idea: I had less than two weeks. I underestimated both the speed and impact hair loss would have on me. When doctors told me I would definitely lose my hair I didn’t believe them: what do they know? A lot more than me it would seem.

For women, head shaving or going short is viewed as symbolic and liberating. I definitely felt lighter after having my hair cropped but this was borne out of necessity and practicality rather than empowerment. I didn’t mind the crop and think it actually quite suited me, however the difference between having a crop and being bald is HUGE.

People try to make light of it. The common retort is ‘oh it’ll grow back’. Knowing this doesn’t make it any easier. Looking at yourself in the mirror and seeing a bald, patchy mess where once you had tumbling tresses isn’t easy. Having no hair makes you feel naked, vulnerable and unfeminine. My head gets cold now, so for both my sanity and comfort it’s always covered, even in bed. I’ve had to make peace with my head but I’m counting the days until my hair grows back.

My laissez-faire attitude to hair loss means I’ve had little time to sort out wigs and hats. I thought it’d be really easy to buy some cotton beanies but these were on the slow boat from China. I’m all beanied up now, however I still carry a scarf for emergencies & gold-card moments.

There are of course a few bonuses with hair loss. Not having to fork out for hairdressers & hair products means I will save money. Deforestation is also no longer part of my routine. Thankfully I still have my eyebrows and lashes, although washing my face has become a delicate operation. I’m waiting for the day when I look down and find my eyebrows staring back at me from the towel.

Back to music: I thought I would struggle to find any hair-loss-tunes, however there are surprisingly more than you’d expect. I was shocked to discover India Arie singing about Breast Cancer and Chemotherapy in ‘I Am Not My Hair‘. The last verse is a tribute to Melissa Etheridge who sang bald at the Grammies after treatment for breast cancer; surely the only time Breast Cancer and Chemotherapy have been name-checked in R & B, if not in music.

I’ve been on a nostalgia trip recently, listening to lots of stuff from my youth, probably something to do with living with my parents, so my swan song to split ends is Pavement’s ‘Cut Your Hair’. Like I said, I’ve got hair on the brain and this is just a great song about hair.

Here are a few more hair harmonies I discovered along the way.

PJ Harvey – Hair

Hank Ballard – How You Gonna Get Respect

India Arie – I Am Not My Hair

Gomo – Proud to Be Bald

The Beach Boys – She’s Goin Bald

Wishbone Ash – Blowin Free

The Lovin’ Spoonful – Baldheaded Lena

Rush – I’m Think I’m Going Bald

Lightnin Hopkins – Bald Headed Woman

Nina Simone – Four Women

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‘Stay positive, be strong & be brave’ are the three mantra’s most commonly thrown at you when you are diagnosed with cancer. There is a common belief that healing is simply mind over matter however, there is no scientific evidence that positive thinking cures cancer or any other disease. Lots of people with a positive attitude survive cancer, however many don’t. Conversely many people with a negative attitude also survive. I’m not knocking it, it’s just really difficult trying to be positive ALL of the time. I’ve managed to stay surprisingly positive throughout this whole experience however I still have my bad days.

This week brought more medical high jinx, starting with an MRI scan on Wednesday. My hair started to molt that morning, so I sobbed my way through the scan. This was compounded by having Paulo bloody Nutini blasting into my ears for the duration. My choice, god knows why but the other options were dire. I briefly considered ‘My guitar gently weeps‘ but that would have finished me off.

I really hoped I might be the lucky one and escape what is one of the worst side effects of chemotherapy. I’d been religiously drinking my magic juice & having a good tug on my locks every morning to check it was working. The joker (Jane Plant) who invented this elixir claims that it not only stops hair loss, but that your hair will become even thicker & healthier than it was before. Well, she was wrong & I want my money back. My hair started to fall out less than two weeks after my first chemotherapy cycle.

Following hair-gate, I started to feel unwell later in the week. I’d been in town with a friend and a walk in the park, I’d normally find easy, completely exhausted me. I woke on Saturday feeling worse. I should have come out of my neutropenic (low immunity) phase by then, so the hospital asked me to come in as a precautionary measure.

My white blood cell count was at zero which meant I had no immunity. My body was also showing signs of infection so they decided to keep me in. As a result I spent the weekend attached to a drip, being pumped full of antibiotics amongst other delights. Potassium chloride was my tipple on Saturday night. I make it sound awful but it wasn’t so bad.  My neutropenic status meant I had my own room and I got to lie down for two whole days which, for someone as active as me, is a novelty: note, positive thinking in action.

Being attached to a drip is a new experience for me. Trying to sleep, move, wash, go to the toilet, eat, type or read is quite tricky, as any slight movement triggers an alarm. When I was well enough yesterday they let me out for a little stroll and I took great delight in perfecting doing the pyjama/drip look. The only thing missing was a cigarette but hey, there’s always a next time.

The nurses were my saviours this weekend: they looked after me; counselled me on all things hair related; buoyed me up and most of all they made me laugh. Humour is one of the few safety valves I can rely on at the moment & their silly banter really kept me going this weekend:

Me: “Can I have a peppermint tea please?”. Nurse: “We dinnae dae any o’ that herbal stuff but I can put a polo mint in some hot water for you if you like!!”

My hair obviously took a back seat this weekend and I’d stopped washing & brushing it to minimise the loss. It was falling out in clumps, so I bandaged it up last night and woke this morning to a big matted bundle not very securely attached to my head. Think dreads, tramp-do, bad comb over and you get the picture. I knew if I brushed it, it would all fall out, so this morning I asked one of the nurses to book me in at the hospital hairdresser and shave the lot off.

This animal was attached to my head

This animal was attached to my head

It wasn’t easy, but getting my hair cut was actually a welcome relief and I feel like a massive burden has been lifted. Unlike Samson, cutting my hair gave me back some strength. When your body is failing you, it feels good to take back some control. I joked about giving up on vanity in an earlier post, but when weighed against your health, hair loss is insignificant.

My hair was going to fall out anyway and raising money for charity helped ease some of the distress I was feeling. Now it’s done, and people are undoubtedly shocked at seeing me without all that hair but there’s not a lot I can do about that. Wig shopping is next on my ‘to do’ list.

This week has been pretty horrific. In less than a month I’ve gone from being a healthy, happy young woman to an invalid living with my parents. I wish there was a big magic button I could press to make this all go away but I have no choice but to go through with it. As my mate Sal so aptly put it: “Chemo is like a superhero disguised as a baddie”. It does pretty awful things to you but it makes you better in the end. Bizarrely I’m looking forward to surgery, it can’t be any worse than this.

I’m thankfully home now and due to have my next chemotherapy cycle on Friday. I need to feel 100% before my body is subjected to another chemical overload so there’s a possibility it might be delayed. They’ve assured me if I become neutropenic again they’ll give me something to boost my immunity. I’m secretly hoping they delay this one as it’s my birthday on Saturday and I’d like it to be chemical free.

I’ve now got my first chemo session under my belt and it wasn’t all that bad. My drug combination goes by the delightful acronym ‘FEC‘:  exactly what I was thinking when they strapped me in on Friday.

Worse was getting a Picc line (peripherally inserted central catheter) inserted the day before. Chemotherapy drugs knacker your veins, so I now have a catheter inserted into a vein in my my arm, which travels into a larger vein in my chest. It’s slightly disconcerting having a plastic tube & tap strapped to your arm 24/7 but I’ve got used to it now. The only rules are no golf, no tennis, no swimming and no baths. It wasn’t painful, just a very strange thing to get your head around. The tranquillisers came in very handy for this appointment.

After two hours of intravenous chemotherapy on Friday I feel surprisingly ok. I’m on steroids & anti-emetics to stop me feeling sick and they seem to be working so far. Aside from the nausea and a little tiredness, the only other major side effect has been my appetite which has all but disappeared. I’ve had some weird cravings for bananas and crisps although not at the same time.

I’m now on a juicing, cleansing mission cutting out all the bad stuff: no caffeine, no dairy, no wheat and no alcohol. The general feeling of queasiness means I haven’t wanted or craved any of the above.

I expect the worse side effects are yet to come. Between my 3 weekly cycles my immune system will crash, meaning I have minimal immunity. This means avoiding people & places where I might catch something. The slightest sniffle and I could be hospitalised. Scary stuff but I just have to be sensible and avoid people who are obviously germ laden.

I’ve also been told hair loss is inevitable. This came as a bit of a shock as Manchester had told me this could be prevented using the cold cap, however I’ve since found out, this isn’t an option. At this stage I’m willing to give anything a try, so I’m now making a super juice daily (Jane Plant), said to minimise hair loss. It’s a bizarre but rather tasty concoction of fennel, apple, carrot & ginger.  I’m not sure of the science but I know it’s something to do with folic acid.

The chemo scarf look really doesn’t appeal, so I’ve been stockpiling funky headwear & thanks to the Scottish government I also get a free wig. I hope the rest of my treatment is as straightforward as this but I have a feeling the worst is yet to come. Bring it on.