hair on the pillow


So… about hair.

Turned out that the anticipation of losing it was much worse than actually losing it.

Before even starting chemo, I went to a shop selling wigs, hats, and prostheses for cancer patients. They advised me to try on wigs then, because, even before hair loss begins, your scalp gets so sensitive that you don’t want anything touching it. (This turned out to be true.)

So I tried on some wigs, and bought one that could pass for a hair cut and color I might actually have had sometime. I have not worn it yet, except briefly to play around and to show people. Before seriously wearing it, I would have to get it professionally adjusted (I have a fairly small head) and trimmed so that the bangs aren’t constantly in my eyes.

But at this point I’ve concluded that I may never wear a wig in public, for several reasons:

  • A wig is basically a tight mesh cap with artificial hair on it. It fits around my head such that its elastic edge has to be over or under the earpieces of my glasses. Either way is uncomfortable and/or distorts my vision, because my glasses no longer sit correctly on my nose. (Yes, I should have figured this out before buying it.)
  • Wigs make your head HOT. And, thanks to both my age and cancer treatment, I am now having all the symptoms of menopause, especially hot flashes. I can go from shivering to sweating in 30 seconds. I am constantly adding or removing layers, including hats. I suspect I wouldn’t manage to keep a wig on for very long. Like Samantha.
  • I don’t have any practice wearing wigs. I would probably keep fiddling with it in a way very distracting to myself and everyone around me. It would just bug me.
  • I’m not used to having hair anymore. The times I’ve tried on the wig, I was immediately irritated by hair falling on my face and getting into my eyes. It’s liberating not to have hair. If it were purely up to me, I might quite happily stay bald. But… a bald woman freaks people out. (Did you know that Sinead O’Connor originally shaved her head to avoid sexual harassment by record producers?)

I can imagine wanting to wear a wig, for the reason Jenny Allen mentions in this monologue: even though it’s obvious to most people that you’re wearing a wig, and they may guess that it’s to do with cancer, wearing the wig is a signal that you are trying to pass for and want to be treated as a “normal” person at this moment, and probably don’t want to talk about cancer. Whereas wearing a hat or going bare is something of a statement. And then you might have to be a cancer evangelist at a moment when you don’t have the energy or resilience to talk about it.

So far, the times I’ve been out in public, I’ve been wearing a cancer hat, and almost no one has said anything about it. I seem to get unusually attentive service in grocery stores (which is nice – the people at Trader Joe’s recognize me and say they’re glad to see me again). Another shopper at TJ’s said to me: “I went through that a few years ago.” “I’m glad to see you’re still around,” I replied. (She had great, thick hair again, too.) Beyond that, I’ve had a few pitying or worried looks. Common as it is, cancer still scares people.

Losing It

But, before I got so philosophical about it, I had to face the anticipation of losing my hair, and that was very upsetting. I had been warned by the literature and the medical people that It would start to go around Day 14 of the adriamycin. Already on Day 5 (Feb 2nd) my scalp became sensitive to a hot shower.

By February 14th, I was brushing out large amounts of hair:


The photo at top, of my pillow, was taken the next day. It was both depressing and annoying to be shedding like a Labrador, and having to clean up after myself with a lint roller and vacuum cleaner. That was the day I had Brendan buzz off my hair (not too short) with clippers:

buzz cut

But it soon began to look ragged, and, as I learned, a newly-balding head is not a smooth, shiny dome:


I don’t know whether the irritation was from chemo or dandruff, but… eww. (It cleared up quickly, since then I’ve had plain scalp shining through).

Not long after, we buzzed it off even shorter:

short hair

My hair continued to fall out. I ended up with some shiny bald patches, but so far I haven’t gone totally bald. Which was actually something of a disappointment: I wanted to do a henna crown. My second chemo regime is taxol, which reportedly can also make you lose hair, but the chemo nurses told me my hair might start to regrow during this treatment. As far as I can tell, it is no longer falling out and is growing back, but very slowly. At this rate, it will be many months before I can pass for simply having a very butch haircut (which wouldn’t be a first for me).

As for the hair elsewhere on my body… my pubic and armpit hair started coming out about the same time my head hair did. Like my head, those areas never became entirely bald, but the hair is still very sparse. I used to shave my lower legs daily. Since chemo began, I’ve shaved a few times, but my leg hair also grows back very, very slowly, and very thin. So, altogether, I’m saving a lot on depilation this year!

I still had eyebrows in late March, but they were mostly gone by late April. Now I seem to have a few thick hairs growing back, also slowly. Some people, in the aftermath of chemo, grow Groucho Marx eyebrows. That would be fine – I could always have them thinned and shaped. But I’m not coordinated enough to draw on non-existent brows with an eyebrow pencil!

One of the side effects of chemo is preternaturally smooth skin. So I have big eyes, a big dome of a head, no lines in my face, no eyebrows, and no hair. Yes, I look like an alien, or a baby. Or, as my daughter said, like Dr. Evil:

Dr Evil

I don’t look at myself in the mirror much nowadays, but… I never did before, either!

my breast cancer story (thus far)


Preparing for Chemo

It somehow works out in my life that, no matter what kind of crisis I’m experiencing, I have expert advice available among my circle of friends. One such is Shridar Ganesan, who became a friend long ago when he married Mithu, whom I’ve known since our study abroad year in Benares, even longer ago.

Shridar is a physician and breast cancer researcher. When my mother-in-law got breast cancer in 2001, he advised us long-distance on the diagnosis and treatment that she was given; it was also he who recommended Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book at that time, which was why I immediately bought it (again) when I received my own diagnosis.

I also immediately emailed Shridar and Mithu, from Paris, with the subject line: “My turn.” Their counsel and support throughout this has been hugely important – it’s been comforting to have a second opinion on the physicians I’ve been working with and the treatments they have recommended, and to have further expert information about what’s going on with me. Shridar and Mithu: Thank you both!

Jan 15, 2015: Had an echocardiogram this morning, to get a baseline on the condition of my heart before starting chemo because, as the technician said: “Chemo and the heart don’t get along so well.” He was from Byelorussia, and we chatted about traveling in that region. “Russia, Ukraine, Byelorussia all ok, but in China – they’ll just make you disappear!”

Then bloodletting and “chemo teach” at the oncology center. The potential side effects of all the drugs are very scary. The one that disturbs me most is possibly irreversible peripheral neuropathy from Taxol. Discussed it with Shridar, he suggested a series of lower weekly doses over 12 weeks instead of 4×2 weeks.


Power Port booklet

Jan 20 – Port placed. I don’t remember the first half or so of the procedure – as before, Dr Mirza said he was giving me something to relax me, and things pretty much went blank for a while. When I came to, the world was blue. They had told me they would be putting sheets all over me, so that was not a surprise. I was immediately uncomfortable; there seemed to be a roll of towel under my spine, and my left shoulder was twisted back and held with the shoulder blade tucked under, exacerbating a pain I often get from sleeping “wrong.” Eventually I asked them to remove the towel under my spine, but the shoulder was unpleasant until everything was finally done.

I could hear Dr T being not entirely happy with the placement of the port. Eventually, after an x-ray (routinely done right after the port placement anyway, to ensure a lung has not been punctured by the end of the catheter) and a CT angiogram the next day, it was concluded that the port could have stuff put into it, but not aspirated out – not a big problem, apparently. Dr T advised Dr L (the oncologist), and I told the oncology nurse about it before starting chemo, so everyone knows what to expect.

Hours later, this is pretty fucking painful. Hope the Percocet kicks in soon.

Having a lump of titanium under your skin and a foot of catheter through a vein takes some getting used to. At first the port slid against the underlying tissues in a very creepy way. The pain was mostly in the shoulder. When I saw Dr T for a follow-up six days later, she said I should have been taking ibuprofen for inflammation, instead of acetiminophen for pain. That helped, plus some mild yoga and turning my uneven mattress around gave the joint some relief. New, fancier mattress coming from Ikea next week for precisely this reason.

Jan 26 – Met with Dr L. Rescheduled the infusions for Thursdays, so that (I hope) the fatigue will hit mostly on weekends. When we talked about side effects and my concerns, he suggested the lower-dose taxol, as Shridar had, so we’ll do that. Which drags the chemo out to 8 + 12 weeks, but worth it to lessen the chance of irreversible neuropathy.

Jan 27

photo top: What the port looks like four months after placement. It has slipped a bit below the original incision, I assume pulled by the weight of the breast. Note that the port is placed on the opposite side to the breast that had cancer.

my breast cancer story (thus far)