My cancer-battling journey: What was it like to lose my hair to chemotherapy?

When I first told a friend who asked that I had to go through chemotherapy as a treatment to fight lymphoma, his first response was, “OMG! You’re going to lose all your hair!”

(This, my friends, is an example of an inappropriate response to any cancer patient/chemo patient.)

Yes, I was aware that I was going to lose my hair. (And brows. And lashes.) But I do want to let you know that “chemotherapy” is not just a single type of drug, but is made up of a customised “concoction” (if you will) of drugs depending on your condition. Not all drugs have hair loss as a side effect. And whether you lose your hair or not doesn’t indicate whether your chemotherapy is working (to kill cancer cells) or not.

While the stereotype of a cancer patient is that of a bald person, I also would like to point out that chemotherapy isn’t the only form of cancer treatment, but it is (I think) the only cancer treatment that will cause hair loss. This happens because chemotherapy drugs kill off all fast-growing cells, which cancer cells are; these fast-growing cells also include healthy hair follicles, among other cells.

The fact that chemotherapy kills off plenty of healthy cells too (yes, it’s not just healthy hair cells that it kills) means that there are actually plenty of other more gruelling side effects that a chemo patient has to go through. Most of the “pain” I suffered during the course of going through chemotherapy wasn’t related to the hair loss at all.

But this being said, I think the hair loss part of chemotherapy was the most emotional, especially as a girl who have had long (and voluminous) hair for most of my life. It was really my crowning glory.

To prepare myself for the inevitable hair loss, I asked my friends who own Ecorganics, an organic hair salon to pop by my place to trim down my very long hair (that I kept for the wedding that concluded 1 month before I was diagnosed). They gave me a pixie cut that I liked.

While the fact that shorter hair fell off, instead of chunks of long hair, made the process less painful, it was still very painful. When the hair loss kicked in about two weeks after my first cycle of chemo concluded, I was devastated. I woke up seeing my pillow covered with hair; I try my best to wash my hair gently so less would fall out.

But you know what? Upon retrospect, it really doesn’t matter. Because everything will eventually fall off. Yes, everything. So there’s no point in trying to “preserve” them or to delay their fall. The hair follicles die, so even wind blowing against your face will blow away hair. Eating was very troublesome for me, because I would have hair falling all over the food I was trying to eat. And this really didn’t help when chemo causes nausea and poor appetite (and other eating issues), while I was also feeling depressed and frustrated that I have hair falling into my food.

Eventually, I asked my friends from Ecorganics to pop by again, because I decided to shave everything off. And if anyone who is going through chemo is reading this, trust me, this is the best decision ever. It was liberating. Because I no longer had to watch my hair fall off slowly.

I’m thinking it has to do, in part, with taking over “power”. When I was battling cancer, I frequently felt helpless and powerless about my own body. Nothing¬†functioned properly anymore when I was going through chemo, and I couldn’t even be sure if the chemotherapy drugs were doing their work well. There was a deep sense of helplessness and vulnerability during this period, and I guess by making my own decision to shave off every strand of my hair helped me “reclaim” that power, and it felt good.

(But I really need to mention that at my weakest, I felt God’s mighty strength the most. In my desperation, I called out to him, told him that I was so scared because nothing was within my control anymore. And He gently told me “But aren’t you glad that I am in control?” Indeed, this was an experience that truly taught me what it means to “let go, let God”. May I never forget this experience.)

Besides the psychological liberation, it was also a practical thing to do. I no longer have to fuss over hair falling everywhere in the house and into my food. And when you have something as huge as cancer to battle, you’ll be happy that you don’t have to worry about “bad hair day” (and I’m not kidding, ok?)

When every strand of my hair fell off (yes, lashes and brows, and other body hair you can think of – some of which I actually don’t miss very much), I felt depressed again. I looked like an alien without my lashes and brows, especially. But I consoled myself by telling myself that I looked very “haute couture model”.

(If I had taken any photos during this time, I would have deleted them. Because it saddens me to look at them. This is why I have no photos to share with you.)

As I went through the later cycles of chemotherapy, which I really didn’t take very well to, and was suffering from very intense side effects that tormented me badly, the hair issues were really the last thing on my mind. (So, if you’re reading this because you’re going to go through chemo and are worrying about your hair, really, it’s the last thing you would be concerned about eventually. And remember, hair grows back!)

When chemo is done, don’t expect hair to grow out immediately. It takes some time, and it may be slow. It took me about 6 months to grow out my hair to a length that I didn’t mind going public with.

Here’s a photo of me going out to the public without my wig for the first time after I was done with chemo. (I could have embedded the photo directly from Instagram, but somehow I’m having some tech issues with it.)

short chemo hair

Before I went public with this ultra-short ‘do, I have been wearing wigs. The thing about wig is that it can get uncomfortable after a while, especially when it’s sitting right on top of your bare scalp. It can also feel warm, and you need to maintain it (wash it, brush it, dry it etc.)

But the fun part is when you get to try different hairstyles every day (if you don’t mind people asking you if you’ve cut your hair or feel puzzled why your short hair grew out so quickly.)

I brought two different wigs to my Taiwan trip and changed them according to my mood:

short wig

long wig

The lashes and falsies don’t take as long to grow out – they came out completely after around 2-3 months if I didn’t remember it wrongly. (FYI: now that your lashes all grew out together, they have the same growth cycle, which means they will also fall at the same time later on too. So it’ll take quite a while before they grow and fall at different rates.)

The hair growth will continue, but I was told that your hair texture may differ. I’ve seen other chemo patients who have curly hair after their hair grew out again. My hair grew out very, very soft at first (like teddy bear fur) but after a year or so, went back to being wavy (I had naturally wavy hair before chemo), so perhaps this was why I didn’t see a lot of difference.

I enjoyed my pixie styles and styling them in cool ways at first. Here’s one of my first attempts at styling:

styled hair after chemo

But it will eventually become a nightmare. This is because the hair at the back of my head grew out a lot faster than the sides. (Tip: Wearing a hair band helps.)

styled hair after chemo 2

I was trying to grow out my hair and was told by several hairstylists that I will have to keep trimming till they grow out at the same length before I can have any cool hairstyles. If you’re reading this and are trying to grow out your hair post-chemo, my advice is: be patient and keep trimming. The good thing for me was that, since I’ve almost always had long hair and never had anything shorter than a bob, it was the best time to try out something new. I would have never volunteered a pixie cut in the past! Thank goodness I think I look pretty ok with it.

One final thing I want to talk about is “awkwardness” related to your hair. For me, I don’t like to make first conversations around my medical history, so I obviously don’t talk about my hair. When I was wearing a wig, I had several people I met at events asking me about my hair, saying that it’s a good cut and asked where I got it done. (AWKWARD.) And then when I went public with my (new) short hair, I had a lot of other people (some of them remembered I had very long hair) asked what made me cut my hair soooo short. (VERY AWKWARD.) You know, the thing is that, if I tell them honestly: “Oh, I didn’t cut my hair, I lost my hair to chemo,” it will really make the person who asked look like a jerk, and he/she can only awkwardly reply “I’m sorry! I didn’t know!” and feel very embarrassed about it. I didn’t want him/her to be in such a situation, so I try my best to deflect the question most of the time. What usually work: “Why leh? Not nice huh?” and then change the topic, or laugh, and then say: “Eh! Tell me about your trip!/Where did you get your dress from!” depending on which one fits the situation better.

By the way, your hairstylist is definitely going to ask about your hair. Some will frown and ask you how you land yourself such a bad “cut” or why you wanted to cut it so short. These are times I’ll tell the truth (I had to) but it will get quite awkward too. Because usually the replies will include: “HUH! But you’re so young!”, “Were you very sad to lose your hair?”, “Poor thing!”

Anyway, these are all I have to share about hair issues related to chemo. If you want to know more because you’re about to go through chemo, are going through chemo, or know of someone who is and wants to help him/her, feel free to drop me a comment/email. If you’re just kaypo, you can also drop me a comment/email, but I’ll only reply depending on how appropriate the question is.

And I’m ending off with the latest photo I have of my hair now, 1.5 years post chemo. (Wished it wasn’t that grainy. Oh well.)

hair after chemo 1 half years

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