Physical Effects of Cancer: Hair Loss

Kim Johnson

Amongst the many conversations we had with providers when my sister was sick, I recall being told about the physical changes that might occur as treatment progressed. On the long list was hair loss, but it wasn’t really something that we took note of. In the scheme of things, it seemed so insignificant compared to the other things that she was facing.

After her first treatment, we did a consult to discuss the state of things, and a nurse once again brought up hair loss. Telling us that statistically, most patients who undergo chemotherapy do experience some degree of hair loss. I remember asking her later that night over dinner if potentially losing her hair bothered her. “Nope.” It was a singular word, not even a discussion and it slipped from my mind.

About eight weeks passed and several more treatments were done. She would wake up with some hair on her pillows and blamed the family dog. It was becoming clear that she was experiencing severe hair loss by this time, and it was evident that she was going to lose it all. Despite what she had said previously, it was clear that losing her hair did bother her.

I and her team tried to talk to her. She was offered wigs and we had many hats at the ready for her, especially as it winter was approaching. But she wouldn’t talk about it, and, by this point, that was pretty on-par for how my sister approached everything involving cancer.

One night, she went to take a shower and after about 10 minutes, she yelled. My mom and I went to see what was wrong, not knowing what we would find. When I pulled back the shower curtain, there was more hair in the drain than left on her head. My sister was sitting on the edge of the tub as tears streamed down her face. In that moment, it was hard to hold it together. Cancer had left her so vulnerable, and this seemed just one more thing that was beyond our control.

I rinsed her head and helped her dry off and get out. When she did, I faced her away from the mirror and shaved away the little hair that was left. As I did so, I told her that I too would be cutting my hair. I had not done so since I was 9, but for her I cut almost 15 inches and donated it to Locks of Love. It wasn’t much and didn’t change how hard her hair loss was for her, but it was a way for me to try and show her that she wasn’t alone.

After helping her to bed that night, I laid there wondering why it had bothered her so greatly when she swore it wouldn’t. And that next day as I braided and cut my hair, I took a moment to stare at myself in the mirror. It was in that moment that I realized it had never been about the hair. It wasn’t about how bald she was or even how different she now looked. It was because being bald was something that was visible.

When she looked in the mirror, she knew she was sick. She knew she had cancer. But now that she was bald, so did everybody else. Up until that time, she could hide behind a false smile and decline to tell people when she wasn’t feeling well. Before hair loss, nobody was the wiser. But once bald, she couldn’t hide anymore.

For my sister, it had never been about the hair, it had always been about the cancer. It broke my heart when she lost her hair twice more during her cancer journey. And I am happy to say that she now sports a brunette head full of bouncy curls. But most importantly, she does so whilst still remaining cancer free.
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