I’m bald, for the second time in my adult life.
The first time I lost my hair was in mid 2015/early 2016. That was as a result of the intravenous chemotherapy I received as part of my treatment for primary breast cancer. My hair grew back within a few months of finishing chemo.
Then in Spring 2019, I was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer. The original cancer had spread and was in my bones and bone marrow. Almost three years into treatment for that, I’m once again on iv chemo and once again I have no hair.
This time, I feel much less of a need to wear a wig. In fact, I actively dislike wearing the one I’ve got. I’ve worn it just a handful of times since I shaved my head just before Christmas. I now much prefer wearing either some other kind of head covering – regular beanie hats or headwear specifically designed for people with chemo-related hair loss – or indeed going bare-headed. I wasn’t expecting to feel this way and I’ve been thinking about why I do.
Lots of women who lose their hair and choose to wear a wig during primary breast cancer treatment give their wig away once they finish treatment and their hair grows back. I didn’t. I just couldn’t. I always knew I was at high risk of recurrence and I always thought I might need my wig again. I wasn’t wrong.
So the wig I have now is the same one I wore during my original treatment.
I remember how, initially, I hated wearing it. Once I’d got used to it, though, I loved how it allowed me to disguise the fact I had cancer. It felt empowering. I went bare-headed in the house among family but never in public and only very, very rarely among friends.
Now the wig feels heavy on my head. It’s uncomfortable. Also, unlike the last time, it’s nowhere near the colour my hair was before I shaved it off. It feels much less “me” than it did before. Fundamentally, I think it’s because I feel much less of a need to disguise the fact that I have cancer. The first time round it was temporary; my cancer was being treated “with curative intent”. Now, it’s permanent and treatment is palliative, aimed at stopping or slowing the cancer from spreading, maintaining as high a quality of life for me for as long as possible and alleviating symptoms. Thankfully I’m currently feeling really well. Indeed while there have been some quite difficult periods, I’ve been well for much of time I’ve been undergoing treatment.
It’s worth noting that this time I chose to shave my head. I could have lived with my hair as it was but I’d had enough. It had become terribly thin after two rounds of eribulin, the iv chemo I’m currently on. Clumps would come out when I brushed it or when I ran my hands through it. It wasn’t falling out on its own, though, and I could have got a haircut – I’d already had one not long before – that would have disguised quite how thin it was. With primary treatment, so much of it was falling out that I really had little choice but to shave the rest of it off when I did. It then never grew during all the time I was on chemo and for a month or so afterwards. This time, it hasn’t stopped growing; I’ve had to buy a head shaver, which I use perhaps once or twice a week. The question for me at some point will be when to stop shaving and let it grow out.
I generally feel a sense of liberation when I take off whatever head covering I’ve been wearing. I like the fact that I have the courage to, as I see it, be myself. It’s not always easy. If it’s a new situation, I’ll be nervous beforehand. I always consider the impact it’ll have on my “audience”, as the last thing I want to do is make people feel uncomfortable. Some well-meaning friends have said I shouldn’t care what other people think but I can’t help it.
It’s much easier when I’m among strangers or am outdoors. By choice I’ve gone bald when I’ve been out walking, whether on my own or with friends. I’ve been bare-headed at the cinema, at the theatre, on the tube or just walking down the street.
We’re lucky enough to have been skiing in France – during the 12-day break I had from hospital that I wrote about here – and I’d sometimes go bald when we stopped for coffee or hot chocolate. And cake.
It felt fabulous having the sunshine and fresh mountain air on my head – although I soon had to put a hat on against the cold!
I’ve started swimming again, where I have little choice in the matter. Also, I had a lovely session at a spa last weekend with my two London-based nieces – again, it was go bald or don’t go at all and miss out on quality time with two of my favourite people.
Even with headwear on, it’s obvious I’m bald underneath. However, I haven’t yet felt able to bare all in the pub, on video calls with work colleagues, or, perhaps ironically, at hospital appointments, whether with the consultant or at the treatment unit. With the last of these, I guess on some level I worry that I’d upset people who have just started chemo and know they are going to lose their hair.
If I’m due to meet friends who’ve not seen me bald before, I’ll let them know in advance that I won’t be wearing any head covering when I see them or that I’m likely to take it off at some point. On a couple of occasions, I’ve asked people if they’d mind if I took off my hat. They’ve always said without hesitation to go ahead.
Sometimes you completely forget just how different you look. You only remember when you realise someone has seen you and done a double take or is smiling kindly at you for what you initially thought was for no obvious reason.
I do think it’s good to normalise cancer. That was part of the reason I started this blog all those years ago. It’s surely a positive thing for people to see individuals who clearly have cancer doing “normal” things. Our situation might be grim, but we’re out there like millions of others with or without disabilities, obvious or not – doing the shopping, working, in the pub drinking beer and laughing with friends, on the tube, walking the dog, swimming, or just sitting on a bench resting. Essentially just being.
I’m not evangelical about it. Everyone should tackle their personal situation in the way that works best for them. For now at least, this way works for me.