The following was written by Rebecca Weintraub, Ph.D, a 10-year breast cancer survivor, former group participant and current board member at CSC-RB.
Forget nausea—the side effect every woman thinks of when she finds out she’s getting chemo is hair loss. And I was no different.
I went from diagnosis to chemotherapy in three weeks. I had a six-centimeter tumor and inflammatory breast cancer. The plan was for four to six treatments. I don’t know why they say four-to-six. It’s always six. There’s a lot the docs don’t know about how each one of us will react to chemotherapy. The side-effects vary by individual.
But they have hair-loss down to a science. The pharmacologist was very specific – I’d lose my hair in two weeks.
Now like most women my hair is an indicator of what kind of day I am going to have. There are good hair days and bad hair days. Now I was facing what one video called “No Hair Days.”
Everyone has a different opinion about how to prepare for chemo-induced hair loss. I decided I would not shave my hair, but I would cut it short and so I did after my first chemo treatment. It was the hardest haircut of my life. The stylist wasn’t just cutting my hair; she was cutting off all my expectations of normalcy. It was probably the most potent symbolism for me of the changes that had hit my life. And it was the first of many, many examples of my loss of choice. I did not want that haircut. And, of course, I cried.
Within a few days I began losing hair. Everywhere I went, whether I was wearing a wig or a hat or the occasional scarf, it felt as if people were looking at me; as if they could see the baldness that was the physical manifestation of my cancer. They couldn’t see the millions of little cancer cells moving through my body trying to kill me. They couldn’t see the chemo-guns blasting them to smithereens. But, they could see the wig. I was convinced they could tell my other-ness.
I was lucky, however. Every Tuesday I would go to Cancer Support Community-Redondo Beach and my support group. Like every other woman there who was going through chemo, I walked in the room and with one flick of my wrist took off my wig. And there, I wasn’t an oddity. I was normal.
We were bald, we were in treatment, we were fighters….and we weren’t alone. We shared our stories, some funny, some sad, some maddening. We cheered when one member announced she had had her first haircut that day and we took comfort that some day we, too, would once again get our hair cut and our legs waxed and our underarms shaved.
And so it was for me. Six weeks after my sixth chemo treatment I looked in the mirror and realized I had hair. Short sticks of hair to be sure, but hair.
That day I went to campus without a wig. My husband said, “You’re going to school topless.”
“Yup,” I replied, “And so is my car.”
With that, I went outside, put the top down on the convertible and drove to USC with the wind whistling through my stubble.