Learning to Love My Post-Chemo Hair


Losing my hair during chemo treatments wasn't the hard part. The process of it growing back was.

Illustration of a woman with short gray hair wearing glasses.

It is just hair, but it is my hair. I can revel in it, right?

Just before chemo started for breast cancer, I got a fashionable bob, donating the ponytail of my long hair. Not long after, hair waning, I clipped it short, what one of my brothers called “New York chic.” Even then, hairs fell onto my keyboard, the classroom floor as I taught and my pillow.

I then shaved to tidy up this balding process. Meanwhile, dying follicles screamed into my scalp. It was a blessing when they all keeled over because the final baldness was painless.

My only regret is not getting the strawberry blonde wig I longed for — a style that could have been fun to try out. When I showed a picture to my son, though, I could tell that look resided outside his comfort zone. He knew me. He knows me. I go for the what-you-see-is-what-you-get fashion statement. I have a few vanities but fewer pretensions.

Being bald was more me (more Mom), for sure, just as being asymmetrical and not worrying about a prosthesis except on occasion is more me too. I did wear scarves, which reminded me of my college days when I often wore a bandana. I wore pretty hats, including a beautiful cotton one both to a friend’s wedding and to my mother’s funeral.

I have a friend to thank for the summer of shedding head coverings. After that wedding on a hot day, she said, “Just take off your hat!” I took off my hat, and scarves, evolving to what I called my “Buddhist nun” look (no offense to Buddhist nuns). In fact, I was happy for my son to take a photograph of me at Naropa University that summer in front of the Allen Ginsberg Library. It is a favorite from my Cancer Days. This is to say, I was OK with being bald or having peach fuzz, yet unprepared for the coming days of wispy, unevenly patterned, slow-growing hair.

At least the hair grew back. I reveled in this growth at first until the ripple effect of cancer treatment on my body began to upset me. The problem was I wanted my old mane back, the thick mop that could easily have served four separate heads in addition to mine. I wanted hair that grew fast and long down my back. It just would not do that. On my best days, I tolerated it. On the worst, I called my hair a dead rat.

Fast forward some years and several attempts at styles that would mask the wispiness of my new hair. Remember the story circulating about how a certain multivitamin with minerals for seniors seems to mitigate dementia risk? After reviewing the study, I bought the supplement. Within months, the post-chemo hair that did not seem to want to grow well, especially on the top of my head, started to try.

And then it happened. My hair began to feel more like my old hair, not quite as thick but thicker than it had been in years. Recently, to celebrate, I splurged on a $24 trim instead of my usual $14 senior clip. Of course, my hair could all fall out tomorrow, and I would deal with it, but for now I enjoy looking like my internal image of myself.

Surviving cancer, we can become sentimental about the Before Days. In my case, I used my hair (or lack of it) as a scapegoat for, I am sure, bigger worries. Now though, with thicker hair, I feel healthier and more in touch with that pre-cancer innocence symbolized by my crowning glory.

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