Thursday, 22 October 2015


Q. What does a cancer patient look like?
A. Bald

Baldness is the signature cancer symptom. In many ways it defines the disease. Many people find hair loss to be one of the most distressing aspects of their diagnosis, and while I can certainly identify with the distress of many of the physical changes associated with cancer treatments, for me, in the end, losing my hair just wasn’t a big deal.

I have dyed and experimented with my hair since I was a teenager. My hair had been everything from black to bleach blonde to red and everything in between, including a delightful shade of peach courtesy of my best friend Ellis’s wizardry with a home bleach kit when we were 16. But I was never precious about my hair. After said peach incident I simply bunged more bleach on it and lived with brittle, cotton-wool fluff for a while. In recent years I kicked the home-dye kit habit and relied instead on the talents of my lovely friend and hairdresser Vicki every six to eight weeks.

The above photo was one of the last taken of me before I was diagnosed, just after the last time I had my hair done. I’d actually had quite a few centimetres cut off the length as before that it had been fairly long for a number of years.

The first time it was mentioned that the treatment would cause me to lose my hair was on my first day at UHCW. Indeed, many side effects were discussed, everything from osteoporosis to infertility, and digestive distress to kidney dysfunction. Hair loss seemed trivial in comparison, yet I remember it was considered very sensitively and seriously. I was told when it would likely happen and that I would be referred to the “wig lady” as a matter of urgency. 

At the time I was pleased about this, not because I was upset about about losing my own hair, but because I was adamant that I didn’t want to look like a “cancer victim”. I told my family and friends that I would wear scarves and wigs because I just wanted to look “normal” and not draw attention to myself.

Within a week, the wig lady came to see me on the ward with a catalogue of synthetic wigs and an abundance of colour samples on metal spools. She knew what she was doing, and flicked her way through the glossy magazine and clicked her way along the samples until she found a style and colour that matched my natural hair. Around a week later she returned with the wig and helped my to fit it as well as giving me advice on styling and caring for it.

If you think “NHS wig” you probably imagine a badly fitted, shiny, plastic-looking, auburn beehive with a visible net and Farrah Fawcett flicks. But when it arrived I was delighted. It looked just like my own hair! None of us could believe how great it looked. At this point my hair had not started to fall out so there was no need to wear it, but I packed it neatly away and intended to wear it regularly.

I first started to notice my hair falling out around two weeks after my first round of chemo. I would wake up to an even covering of long brown strands on my pillow each morning. It didn’t come out in clumps, rather it would thin out all over a bit like when you’re grooming a shaggy dog.

One day I brushed my hair and quite a lot came out. I took a photo of it in the sink; I knew the end was nigh. After that day, I tied my hair up in a scrunchie until the day I shaved it off.

Around a week later, the bun that sat precariously atop my head was attached by a few strands around the front, back and sides… underneath sat a mass of matted, loose hair. At one point I attempted to renegotiate the bun’s position and ended up with a ridiculous bald patch right at the front of my head. I was starting to look a bit too much like Gollum. In fact, to resemble Gollum in any way is to look too much like Gollum. It had to go. I rallied the troops and Ellis and Katherine arrived armed with a pair of clippers and we got to work.

Looking back over these photographs, I think Ellis and Katherine were pretty insensitive to be reppin’ such fierce hair while they were shaving mine off. But in all seriousness, it was a relief to see it go. It never felt like a symbolic act, that I was “regaining control” like the films would lead you to believe. I saw it as something that simply had to be done; the solution to a problem. The malting had been driving me mad, the mess, the inability to wash properly. Afterwards I had a shower and it was heaven.

It was surprising how quickly me and my family got used to how I looked without hair. I was told on several occasions that I was lucky to have such a nicely shaped and well proportioned head. I was likened to Amber Rose on three separate occasions. And despite my previous reservations about looking like a cancer victim, I ended up embracing the bald. I never wore headscarves, and wore the wig only twice, once for my sister’s wedding two weeks after the initial shave, and once for a Christmas party at Matt’s scout group. But I always felt a bit silly in it. During that time I was spending all my time with close family and friends, all of whom knew I was bald. It was as if I was asking them to pretend I wasn’t and instead participate in the delusion that I had hair. Luckily, it was a seasonally advantageous time for me being winter as I could wear woolly hats out and about without looking too cancer-y, but the rest of the time I was free to the wind and I would happily whip it off in shops, restaurants and cafes. 

But I do wonder, if more than 1 in 3 people get cancer, why do we not see more bald people? My initial worries about looking "normal" was misguided. Over 300,000 people are newly diagnosed each year. So why is it not more normal to be bald and unembarrassed about it?

my wig on it's first outing

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