No Matter What, It Matters (The Psychological Importance of Hair)

December 17th, 2010 § 6 comments

originally published September 12, 2009

My friend Andrea found out she needs to have chemo. I cried a lot the day I found that out. Last night she emailed me that she was thinking about the whole “losing her hair” thing. She has gorgeous hair. Thick. Straight. Reddish-brown, in the sun I’d say it has a honey shine in it. She usually wears it back in a ponytail, as she says, “taking it for granted.”

I started writing her back to tell her that focusing on her hair wasn’t silly. There are many things about cancer that are real worries. One of them is going bald. Especially for a woman. And as I typed to her I realized the words were flowing fast and furious.

I realized all the things people had said to me when I was worried about losing my hair and all of the things people had said to me after it eventually happened.

Everyone wants to reassure you that it isn’t as bad as you think it is.
Some days you convince yourself it isn’t that bad.
Some days you are sure they are all lying to you.

Either way, you get through the days.
The day you take that hat or wig or scarf off and wear your newly-grown stubble or “mouse fur” out in public is a great day (My first hair was so fine and soft and thin that it didn’t resemble hair at all… I called it mouse fur because while it blissfully covered my head and was dark, it couldn’t be cut or styled).

So, for my friend, and for other women who are getting ready to start chemo (and those who bravely walk through the world every day without hair because of alopecia and other conditions), no matter what, it matters.

No matter what anyone says…
all the things they will say:
It’s only hair.
It’ll grow back.
You’ll look so pretty anyway.

With a face like yours it won’t matter.
We’ll get you a cute wig.
We’ll get great scarves.
It’ll grow back in no time.
Maybe it’ll be better after it grows in.

It might be curly.
It might be straight.
I know someone whose hair came in gray.
I know someone whose hair came in red.
I know someone whose hair came in black.
I know someone whose hair came in white.

Hers came in curly.
Hers came in straight.
Did you see hers?
It looks great.
Did you see hers?
It looks awful.

I like her better with short hair.
I liked her better with long hair.
You’re gonna look great.
I don’t know what I’d do.
I don’t know how you do it.
I don’t know how you’re gonna do it.

You are so brave.
You are so strong.
You can do it.
You can beat this.

No matter what anyone says–
It is just going to suck.

You may shed many tears over this one.
It may be harder than you thought.
I’ve heard brave women say it was harder than the actual chemo.
Reports show women actually turn down the chemotherapy they need because they don’t want to go bald.

It’s real.
It’s hard.
If it weren’t,
Women wouldn’t cover their heads.
They would just walk around bald.
They wouldn’t care.

But hair matters.
To us,
To our kids,
To our husbands,
To our friends.

My hair has never been the same since chemo.
I’m not alone in that.
In fact,
My hair now grows “the other way”…
My part is on the opposite side of my head than it used to be.
I think that’s kind of neat.
There’s the way my hair was B.C. (before cancer)
And the way it is now.

It is a big deal.
Don’t let anyone minimize it.
If they do, make them go shave their heads.
Not just clipper cut.
Straight razor shave it until there’s nothing left.
Then the eyebrows.
Then the eyelashes.
And then the stuff they might not think about.
Every piece of body hair.
Of course there are jokes.
And giggles.
The Brazilian wax done for you.
It’s funny.
But not so funny.

Then when your nose hairs fall out you suddenly realize how
Much you needed them.
Your nose runs constantly.
And it’s embarrassing.
Mine dripped clear liquid constantly.
I was so embarrassed.
No one had told me about that part.
I had a tissue stuffed in every pocket.
Because there were no hairs to stop the drip.
Chemo drip.

You try to imagine what it will be like.
You try to picture what you will look like bald.
You pull your hair back,
Slick it back,
Try a wig on to see what it might look like.
But nothing can prepare you.
For that crappy day,
Two weeks in.
When you scratch an itch
Or touch your head
And take away a handful of hair
Or find it on your pillow.
And the sight of it is so sad,
But so disgusting
So repulsive,
That you need it gone.

And then if you need me
You will call me.
And I will come.
And I will cut it.
Or maybe I will just come and cry with you.
And remember what it felt like.

No matter what anyone says,
It isn’t nothing.
It is something.

And even in the scheme of all of the things to be afraid of with cancer,
How you feel about losing your hair is real.

It matters.

And I remember.

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§ 6 Responses to No Matter What, It Matters (The Psychological Importance of Hair)"

  • Pamela Carlson says:

    You’re tugging at my heart!

    Part of me assumes that one day, I’ll be going through chemo (while most of me is sure I’m NOT going to have a recurrence) and I have thought a great deal about the hair issue. I know it would be a big, emotional deal for me. I’m not sure I won’t slap anyone who tries to tell me it’s a detail.

    So, brava, bella, for saying all this.

  • Colleen Lindsay says:

    I think that the experience of losing your hair is different to every woman. As someone who has recently lost my hair because of chemo, I can say with all honesty that it really didn’t matter *to me*. And I’ve met quite a few women for whom this was also a non-issue. I think that it’s always dangerous to make assumptions about how another person will experience a situation based on how you yourself may have reacted to that same situation.

    I work with a woman for whom hair loss was a major concern; she chooses to wear a wig to make herself feel more comfortable. That’s what works for her and I support her decision.

    Myself, I wore a hat for about half a day but my head was so hot that I decided to just go bald at work. After an hour or so, none of my colleagues even noticed anymore. I did have one rather inebriated woman – a total stranger – pet my head at a bar at the office Christmas party last night and tell me she thought it “was cool” and one small child asked his mom if I was a pirate while on the subway, but that’s about the only odd reaction I’ve had from anyone. It has become a total non-issue at work and among my friends and family.

    I made the decision to finally shave what was left of hair off on the spur of the moment. I was on my way into the subway, saw a barbershop in the basement of the subway station and popped in to ask the barber to clean things up. I explained the chemo situation and he nodded and said “Yes, my wife went through that! I cut her hair, too! It grew back curly.” Then he clipped my hair very short and shaved the rest with a straight razor. I watched him cut it and other than a bit of trepidation when he brought out the straight razor (I mean, hey – I’ve seen Sweeney Todd, okay???), I had zero emotional reaction to the whole process.

    • I agree, Colleen, and we have had chats about this. I don’t make assumptions about what it will be like, I was writing this for my friend; she was terrified of losing her hair. I have found that while my words don’t represent all women, they do represent a lot of them. Most women are afraid to lose their hair, we know this from surveys, from talking to oncologists, from seeing what women do to conceal their hair loss. Men are far more likely to just go bald than women are.

      You are not alone in your opinion, but it is the minority. I think living in New York City makes a difference as well. The vast majority of women whom I have seen bald in public is higher in NYC where residents are used to anything!

      I admire your attitude, it’s not what most women opt to do where I live and most of those whom I’ve encountered. For my friend, and others, I think it’s important to expresss my feelings since it was hard for me to lose my hair. It was only 2 years after finishing chemo that I posted a picture of myself bald. It doesn’t bother me now, but it did at the time.

      In the same way you feel I may have over-estimated the importance of hair, I felt at the time that many in my life under-estimated it. They tried to minimize it, and I didn’t want my friend to feel that she was alone if she felt that way, too.

      I am sure there are many who will feel your words resonate more than mine, so thank you for taking the time to write them.

      • Colleen Lindsay says:

        I think you’re misunderstanding me. I’m not saying that I disagree with you or that I feel you put too much importance on hair loss or any of the other side effects you may have experienced with cancer. What I’m saying is that your experience is completely valid for *you* and you alone. Because we all experience it completely differently.

        It would be insensitive of me to assume that the way I’m experiencing cancer is the only way any woman should experience it. Clearly that’s nuts. I have no kids; I’m a decade older than you; I’m a dyke; I live alone; I did not have a mastectomy or reconstruction. All of these things by necessity contribute to our having a very different experience of the same kind of cancer.

        But what I am saying is that you sometimes seem to make the assumption that all women do or should have the same feelings that you’ve had, and experience cancer the same way you did, which isn’t true. When you address a blog post to all women about to lose hair due to chemo, and say “No matter what, it matters” you are making a vast generalization. I just ask that you try to keep that in mind when you write. Your experience and feelings are valid; so are mine. But they’re completely different because we’re different human beings.



  • Darryle says:

    I could not agree more. Here’s what it was like for me–and why every day since I had cancer is now a good hair day.

    PS the best hair day I ever had was growing it all back and cutting it off to donate.

  • Joanne Firth says:

    I’m glad you re-posted this post Lisa, I had not seen it before. Even if I did it would not have had the impact it does now. My hair will be gone in a few weeks from chemo I had to fight for because my doctor didn’t think I was a candidate. When she went straight to radiation therapy for me, I thought to myself, “I’m off the hook”, “I’m not going to get sick and lose my hair”. Then it hit me. I WANT chemo. I will deal with the side effects. I will deal with being bald. I want to live. I want to have the best chance possible to beat breast cancer. I had already ordered my wig and had begun to get mentally prepared to have to wear it every day.

    I thought I was being vain about my hair and making a big fuss over “not that big of a deal”. After reading this, I feel comforted that my thoughts and grief over losing my hair are appropriate and not silly vanity speaking. When I first was told by my surgeon that I would most likely need chemo due to lymph node involvement, I got in the car and spoke louldy, “I have great f-ng hair!”.

    All I can say is you are right. It is a very real emotion and loss. I have pulled my hair back to see what I looked like bald. I didn’t even think about eyebrows and eyelashes until I was talking on the phone to my sister-in-law whose mom just went through chemo. I ordered eye lashes too along with the wig, top and bottom. Now I know about the nose hair loss and can prepare even more for a drippy, chemo nose. Lisa, you have helped me so much since the day I was diagnosed. Along the way, you’ve been there helping me along. Helping me understand what is happening to me. Having breast cancer is like getting a brand new education. The amount of information seems endless. The little things you never thought about like eyebrows and eyelashes. Thank you for you words. Today was a good day for me to read them.

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