Everybody knows that people with cancer lose their hair when they get chemotherapy. Like most bits of common wisdom, this is only partially true. It depends on what type of chemo you received. For some types of chemotherapy there is no hair loss.
However, one of the most common side effects of Paclitaxel (Taxol), the chemo drug that was chosen for me, is hair loss. So I went into treatment sure that I would lose my hair. I got a wig. I didn’t do anything radical. It was very close in color to my real hair, mostly grey. That blew my belief that I still had blonde highlights in my hair. I also got several hats to wear if I didn’t want the bother of a wig. I learned to tie a bandana into a makeshift hat. There is nothing like being prepared.
As I started treatment, I was totally focused on the side effects of that treatment not on the cancer itself. Surgery had removed all of the cancer that could be seen on a full body scan. We were doing chemo to clean up any remaining “too small to be seen” cells that were left in my body. Treatment wasn’t going to be any fun but it wasn’t a matter of life and death as it is for many people diagnosed with cancer.
And right on schedule, 19 days into my treatment, I discovered that a few strands of hair had fallen out. My hairdresser had said that when it started falling out to come in and she would shave my head. Normally hair that falls out because of chemo comes out in clumps and shaving the head is the best approach. On the other hand, my cousin reported that when his son had cancer related hair loss he woke up one morning with all his hair on his pillow. I was prepared for either scenario.
What I wasn’t prepared for was that the hair loss was very slight. Strands kept falling out every day but not large clumps. My hair was thinning, not falling out. So I began to hope. Could I be the rare person who didn’t lose their hair to Taxol? Weeks went by and my hair got thinner but it still looked like hair. About two months into the 12 weeks of treatment a friend, who hadn’t seen me for about six weeks, commented on how thin my hair was getting. So I looked closely and discovered that I had developed typical male pattern baldness, a bald spot on top of my head near the back. And since I was looking at my hair closely I realized how very thin it was.
I decided to start wearing hats in public. Hats are very fashionable in the dead of winter. However, I quickly gave up on the hats, as I wasn’t used to wearing them and they were a nuisance. Still the word had gotten out that I was wearing hats and my book club did a wonderful thing. I showed up for our December meeting (not wearing a hat) and everyone else had on a hat. They had decided to not allow me to be the only one there with a hat on. I have some very nice friends.
Then chemo was over. I’d had my last infusion and still had some very thin hair. I couldn’t believe that I’d made it through. About 2 ½ weeks after my last chemo infusion I knew that soon the new hair would start growing in, covering the bald spots and thickening my hair. Everything I’d read or been told about hair loss said that two to three weeks after the end of the treatment hair would start growing back in.
Then, 3 ½ weeks after the end of chemo, the unfairness of a very unfair disease rose up and knocked me down. My hair started falling out in bunches. I sent a message to my doctor to make sure that this wasn’t something serious. She responded with a phrase she’d used many times before “everyone reacts differently”. My delayed side effects weren’t unusual. She also said it could be another month before my hair started growing back in. One month after my last chemo infusion I was totally bald. I looked like I was expecting to look months earlier.
It has now been six weeks since the end of chemo. I am now wearing a hat in public as the baldness makes me self-conscious. Some ”peach fuzz” may be starting to appear on my head or it may be just wishful thinking. Most of my side effects from chemo have been milder than expected. Hair loss appeared to be following that pattern but it was not to be. Still I can’t complain too much. I still seem to be cancer free.