Hair loss is a side-effect of some cancer therapies. It symbolizes fear and loss of control in the face of cancer diagnosis. And it’s a big concern for many cancer patients.
As silly or vain as it may sound, our appearance is a core aspect of our identity. It has a powerful impact on how we understand and locate ourselves in the world. Sure, fashion and gender styles are fluid . . . in 2018, lots of people shave their heads. However, sudden, undesired hair loss from chemotherapy (or for any other reason) is a different thing.
First, unlike shaving, hair loss from chemotherapy is not intentional. It can also be messy; exposing irregular, patchy spots on our scalp and leaving clumps of hair on our pillows and clothing. Hair loss is embarrassing. To get closer to a worse-case scenario, just imagine what it might look like if a small rodent chewed your hair over a period of days or weeks.
Second, unlike shaving, which leaves a shadow of shorn hair in the follicles, hair loss leaves nothing—no definition. Our scalp looks different without hair roots because there is only skin.
Third, in addition to the hair on our head, we’ll often loose our eyebrows. This can be a terrible shock. While it’s understandable to feel self-conscious when we lose our hair, especially if we already look pale and unwell, the loss of our eyebrows alters our appearance dramatically. Hair signals youth and vitality. Without our hair and eyebrows, we can look and feel vulnerable. We don’t look like ourselves. To be frank, our face may look baby-like, especially if we’re taking steroids that give us a round or “moon face.”
Should you lose your own hair, you may or may not want a wig. Fewer people want them now than in the past. When I was diagnosed with stage IV non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, almost 20 years ago, I had a $950 wig constructed out of real hair. I never wore it with confidence because it always seemed to shift position and end up at some unflattering angle. I had foolishly ignored expert advice to get a short style, instead insisting upon recreating my previous look. It was an impressive wig but even with heavy make-up, my face no longer matched the strong look of the long, thick, brown curls. I probably wore the wig five or six times before I finally abandoned it entirely. When I look at it now I’m touched by what a lovely and generous a gift it was from my family. The natural hair is still beautiful.
A Cancer Wig
In this photo, the wig looks like a wild animal. I don’t know whether to smile or cry. Now, of course, synthetic wigs are more popular and people are more daring with colour and styles. But real hair wigs still hold a special place for many patients because they help them to recognize something of themselves when so much of who they are has gone. People all over the world donate, offer and even sell their hair so that those without hair can feel more like themselves.
You can contribute, too. Do some research to find out how you can help. Here in British Columbia many people donate their hair to create wigs for adults and kids who are facing difficult journeys.