Thank you to Helen Chand for this honest and informative Patient Story in which Helen shares with us the unexpected impact that her hair loss and subsequent regrowth has had on her. From beautiful blonde to beautiful brunette, Helen has given us a first hand insight into each stage of her experience.
I was always 'blonde Helen'
Hair loss for me during chemotherapy, and regrowth since, has been one of the most unexpected parts of my breast cancer diagnosis and recovery. In a good way. For as long as anyone can remember, I have been defined by my long blonde hair, defined in ways I am only realising now I don't have it. I was always 'blonde Helen'.
When I was told at the age of 49, that I had breast cancer and would need chemotherapy, everyone’s response was the same, “but your hair!”.
There seemed more upset and worry around me for my mental state, losing this lustrous mane, than anything to do with my actual cancer and getting over that. My awareness of the inevitable, seemed rather detached, a response I had from diagnosis, through treatment and still now…. like it all happened to someone else. Quite a common response I am told and one I am happy to have been blessed with. And then of course I began the actual chemotherapy treatment when the hair loss starts and as my husband once said, when I asked how I seemed “you just seem a bit away with the fairies” - I was! On reflection that was probably a good thing!
The fall-out from chemotherapy
Two weeks after I began my first chemotherapy session, on a Tuesday morning, I remember it vividly, my hair began to fall out. The hair on my head that is. It had already gone everywhere else. And I mean everywhere. I was doing a story on my Instagram account for family and friends and was running my hands through my hair showing a few strands were coming away. But as I did so, in front of the camera, a huge chunk came away in my hand. The tears started to fall at that point. It was hard to watch. Almost immediately I began to get advice to buzz cut it, as it would be less traumatic, and I would be taking control. But I wasn’t ready and I always give that advice now. You will know when you are ready to buzz cut your hair, or not if you choose not to. As I did, just three days later. It was the Friday. Unexpectedly my tears had turned to pure frustration and a decision that it had to go as I was leaving hair everywhere. Absolutely everywhere. In the car, in the house, on the poor dog, on my family members, in food. It was shedding! And there was still a lot left on my head. Thank goodness I had cut four inches off the month before in preparation.
Tackling the buzz cut
On the Friday morning I went out for brunch with my girlfriends, styled my hair one last time (under a hat within 5 minutes to the relief of fellow al fresco diners as it was a bit breezy!) and then my daughter came over in the afternoon, and she buzzed it off for me.
We put Radio 2 on and to this day I remember the song that was playing as we started, KC and The Sunshine Band and Give It Up. I hid in the bedroom when my husband came in from work. I was so worried what he would think but he hugged me, told me that he loved me and that he liked this new edgy look. What I then forgot was that falls out too! I was happily embracing my Sinead look when I began to have another two weeks of being showered with little pine needles until eventually it was all gone.
Scalp care for chemo hair loss
I took a lot of care of my bald head. I probably had no hair at all for about 4 months. I used coconut oil mainly or baby oil. I would massage it into my scalp every morning and night. I was advised to do this because if you don’t it becomes very dry. I also wore a bamboo cap to bed. Although I was mostly bald there was an area at the back that remained stubbly. This was uncomfortable on my pillow. The cap made all the difference for a good night’s sleep. And being bamboo, it was lovely and soft and breathable.
Head scarves during radiotherapy
The next unexpected experience of hair loss was my absolute obsession with head scarves. So much so that when I began my 20 sessions of radiotherapy, I decided to wear a different headscarf to each daily session. Fun for me and the amazing staff. Day 20 was the big reveal of how much my hair had grown. About half a centimetre but I loved every bit of it.
Having had so much hair I had decided I would be investing in many a wig, yet again unexpectedly I didn’t. I had a couple and hated the feel of them on my head, so would change my headscarves daily, finding different styles from others. Some simple. Some elaborate. Alternatively, if I got too hot, I would walk around bald. Not often but I would choose that over discomfort. I learned very quickly that your head can lose or gain a lot of heat suddenly. Nobody seemed to mind around me. I did get sad stares, and it could get annoying, but people are only trying to be kind and I think I have probably been guilty of that myself in pre-cancer days.
Freedom from hair loss
Talking of unexpected things as I lost my hair, one was a feeling of freedom. A freedom from the image I had portrayed or hidden behind for years. My hair had gone and I felt relieved. Not sorry. Actually, that’s a bit of a fib. Sometimes I am. Those pesky Facebook memories. But then I must remind myself that they were usually when I was dressed up, hair was immaculate and not the ordinary every day. I don’t miss the monthly trip to the salon. I don't miss the judgments (although I was prone to pulling the ditzy blonde card when I made mistakes at work, never failed!). I don't miss how hot it made me!
My hair regrowth has been nothing short of amazing. I have had fun documenting it. All the different stages and looks. The Elvis look was my least favourite phase I have to say! I was going to be feeling a bit hard done by if I had any grey hair as I had none before my cancer diagnosis (I used to get my hairdresser to inspect the roots!) and there are none. It started out very fair, almost blonde and then it changed to a dark brunette. And the absolute silver lining is I have curls. Yes curls! I have been wanting curls all my life and now I have them. I realise they are chemo curls as they call them, and they may go in time when I have trims, but I am hanging onto them for as long as I can, aiming for long brunette curly locks.
Embracing Helen the brunette
One thing remains, always that question. “Will you go blonde again?” Now this is a difficult one. It also leaves me with that self-doubt that creeps back in from time to time during recovery or regrowth. Are these questions loaded with the thoughts from people that I should? That it looked better before? The decision is currently being made for me as right now without a grey, and with the condition of it so lovely I shall be grateful for what I have and give brunette Helen a go.
To follow the stages of Helen's experience in more detail she can also be found on Instagram @helenjaneagain