In July 2011 Barbara Carlos was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. A resident of Hawaii, she works in administrative support at a college and has retirement as her career goal. Music keeps her sane, as side effects of chemo and radiation linger. Overweight since childhood, she keeps trying to lose the estrogen-laden fat that her cancer loves.
During cancer treatment, patients lose a lot of things, but one thing that’s constantly noticed is hair loss.
I had read all the pamphlets given to me by the angels that are oncology nurses. I had been busy clicking away on the websites for the American Cancer Society, Susan G. Komen and others. I am a good patient. I follow doctors’ instructions. I try to be as informed as I can as a lay person.
I knew chemo meant I was going to lose my hair. Before starting treatment, I called the American Cancer Society and made an appointment for a wig. My sister and my best friend of nearly 30 years went with me. I could have gone alone, but it was nice to have their support. The volunteer asked me about style and color. I wanted to stay close to my natural hair color, but wanted something on the short side. The first one I tried on was perfect. Short and sassy, it was a quite a bit shorter than my long hair but it was a style I had worn for years when I was in my 30s. My groupies concurred. The occasion was lighthearted.
I had planned to ask my nephews to give me a buzz cut once my hair starting falling out. For some strange reason, all three of them had adopted this style as a fashion statement in spite of the lovely curly and wavy hair they all had. However, my sister intervened. Her hairstylist offered to cut my hair really short in preparation for wig wearing and also wanted to style my wig. I usually went to Supercuts for a trim as needed, but I thought I’d go along with these ideas.
All went well at my first chemo. A few days later, as I was blowing my long hair dry, I noticed individual hairs flying through the air. I turned off the blow dryer and looked at the floor. There weren’t a lot of hairs lying on the tile, but it was enough to make me pause to consider the reality of what they meant. I didn’t use the blow dryer again, but over the next few days it seemed like I shed wherever I went.
On Saturday, the hairstylist took so much time and care cutting my hair short that I wondered if she didn’t notice that hair had started falling out already and her efforts wouldn’t matter in another few days. I admit, it looked good when she was finished. I put on the wig and she started snipping. I hadn’t realized it was in my eyes. When she was done, the wig framed my face and looked natural.
A few days later and my hairdo was an imitation of Telly Savalas. It may have looked good on him, but it didn’t look good on me. I wore my wig daily for months whenever I went to work. It looked great but I was always glad to peel it off once I returned home. The wig was hot and uncomfortable after a few hours, even with a wig cap on. On days when I didn’t work, I wore a hat or a scarf tied as dramatically as I could manage. Neither looked as good as the wig, but that was fine with me.
Chemo followed chemo. I saw my eyebrows slowly disappear and then there were fewer lashes to put mascara on. I went to a make up class sponsored by the American Cancer Society and learned how to draw on eyebrows. Fake eyebrows aren’t great, but they are way better than no eyebrows.
About three months after my last chemo, I noticed a little bit of something on my head. At first, I thought I was imagining it. Every morning and every night I checked my head. Yes, it was really hair, growing back ever so slowly. Not wanting to scare small children, I continued to wear my wig. Time passed and it was summer. There was hair, but not enough to go topless. I stopped with the hot, uncomfortable wig but kept sporting a scarf or a hat, now showing a bit of hair underneath.
In August, I was ready to take the plunge. There was a three-day weekend so I would have time to get used to being bareheaded again before going back to work on Monday. On the way home from work on Thursday, I went for my first haircut in a year. I didn’t need it cut but I want it trimmed and shaped a bit. It was a strange experience. The salon didn’t charge me for a haircut but only charged for a bang trim since there was so little to work with!
My reddish-brown, curly hair was permanently gone. In its place was straight hair in all shades of gray and silver. Gray hair is not unusual for a woman my age. Still, I didn’t like looking at it. It made me feel and look older than I care to admit. After a year I had enough of the gray and started coloring it. I think as long as I am working I will hide the gray. Although I had always wanted straight hair and have gotten used to it by now, I really miss my curls. My hair initially grew back well but one of the side effects of my current medication is thinning hair. Since there isn’t much there I continue to keep it short. Every time I get my hair done I tell them to style it so that people will notice the haircut and not the lack of hair.
I keep my wig in a box in a dresser drawer, ready to be pressed into service should the need arise. But I think that if I lose my hair to chemo again, I’ll leave it in the drawer. I’ve been there and done that and I am braver now.