It’s Never “Just” Anything
July 27, 2023
I was visiting Adrienne last week and she looked at me and said:
“Man, I’m glad I shaved my head before it fell out from the chemo because this post-partum hair loss is triggering enough and I really can’t imagine watching it come out in clumps until it was all gone.”
This is not the first time that hair loss has come up in conversations we have about Adrienne’s cancer experience. The truth is that although there are scars, although there is lymphema, although there is a petrified-forest-of-a-breast attached to the left side of her chest, the most painful memory always seems to go back to the fact that chemotherapy took her hair.
I’ve learned that majority of individuals undergoing chemotherapy will experience chemotherapy-induced hair loss and for many cancer patients, the hair loss is often the worst part of it. Worse than the nausea and vomiting. Worse than the fatigue. Worse than feeling like you can’t get up off of the couch to go pee.
There is another side to this story as well. Because of the public perception that cancer treatment equals hair loss, the people who don’t lose their hair, including some of those living with metastatic cancer, often experience confused looks and responses when they share with colleagues or loved ones that they have cancer because they “don’t look sick.”
The only time the hair loss was ever discussed by Adrienne’s medical team was when the oncologist told her that “Unfortunately, there isn’t a breast cancer treatment when it’s still only in the breast that doesn’t make you lose your hair.” She had sat there listening to him talk about the aggressive plan he had in mind for her, the dose-dense chemotherapy because she was young and healthy and he thought she could handle it, and said nothing. But when he told her she would lose her hair, she burst into tears. I was on the other end of a telephone listening to the conversation and that was it, a kind of “it is what it is” moment, and then the oncologist moved on to the next thing on his list.
A few weeks later, I accompanied Adrienne when she went to a “Look Good Feel Better” workshop to learn how to apply eyebrows and get advice on the best false eyelashes to use that would cause the least irritation. Sitting in the same room was an older woman who had done the same chemotherapy drug as Adrienne would be doing for the second phase and the hair had never grown back on the front half of her head. No one ever told Adrienne that this was a possibility. The common theme of responses was that it was “just hair and that it would grow back.” The horrific reality is, not all the time.
I can’t even begin to fathom the anxiety Adrienne carried looking at her hairless head and face in the mirror every day for months wondering which of those realities was going to be her future. Nor can I comprehend the degree of relief when the stubble came back all over her head, but let me tell you, the celebration of the appearance of the widow’s peak just above her forehead was a joy to be a part of.
The emotional impact of chemotherapy-induced hair loss is monumental. If you Google ways to support people going through it you see such things as “understand and empathize” and “accept and validate their feelings.” This is why peer support is SO vital to the young breast cancer community, why organizations like Rethink need to exist. The only people who can truly empathize with all that goes with chemotherapy-induced hair loss are people who have to wake up every day with clumps of hair on their pillows, or sit in a chair watching in a mirror as their heads are shaved after choosing to avoid that experience. The only people who can validate the emotional trauma of being forced to accept that to do the treatment intended to save their lives means that they will find more and more eyelashes on their facecloths are those who have shed the tears of looking at a face they don’t recognize as their own. The only people who can understand what it’s like to hear that it’s “just hair” are those who know it’s not.
Because it’s never “just” anything.
Mother…Grandmother…Librarian…Military Spouse…Caregiver…Family Life Educator…take your pick! Debbie Legault was born in British Columbia, Canada to a former RCAF airman father and a Scottish War Bride mother and has lived in other Canadian provinces, Germany and California. She has been married for 36 years to a Canadian Air Force Veteran and credits him with filling her life with adventure. When Debbie Legault’s children look at family photos they often comment on how many different hairstyles she has had and that pretty much is her story, that her life has taken as many turns and led her down as many paths as her hair has changed! Her latest role is as the author of Mom…It’s Cancer, the story of supporting her 27-year-old daughter, Adrienne, as they experienced breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.