By Amy Calkins Teague
I was born with a normal amount of hair. It was thin, duck down, soft blonde hair that thickened as I grew. By the time I was 4, I had beautiful, long, straight blonde hair with natural highlights. I always kept my hair long as it was, in my opinion, my best feature. My friends were always complimenting me on my hair. “What shampoo do you use?” or “Who cuts your hair?”
While the compliments were flattering, the truth was far from glamorous. I used Suave or Pantene shampoo and I only cut my hair twice a year. I was just blessed with beautiful hair. If there was a high school senior award for “Best Hair”, I would have won.
The Cancer Patient Milestone
When I was diagnosed with cancer five years ago, one of the milestones of treatment I was dreading was the hair loss. I mean, my hair was a major part of my identity. I was so scared. I was in the throws of a divorce, my abdomen had been gutted like a fish and the one thing that padded my self-confidence was about to be lost. I did not want Travis (my husband) to see me bald as I was still fighting for my marriage.
I asked my nurse, Ashley, about it. “How long until my hair falls out?” “It will start to fall out about three weeks after your first chemo treatment.“ Lovely. I was really hoping she would say that these drugs don’t cause hair loss (some chemotherapy medications don’t cause hair to fall out). Before my first chemo treatment, I cut my hair to a short “bob” to hopefully lessen the shock and awe of being bald (looking back this was a good move).
My friend Juliet Boyce took me to pick out a wig. It was a bizarre experience. I felt like I was looking for hair for a costume. I didn’t cry or get emotional. It was not traumatic, likely because I was high on Marinol at the time (synthetic marijuana prescribed to me to help me put on weight.) I giggled throughout this particular shopping trip!
When I was first diagnosed, I told my seven and four year old daughters that when my hair started to fall out, they could give me a haircut. They were ecstatic. About two weeks after my first treatment, I would notice a few strands of hair on my pillow in the mornings. Then three weeks to the day, there were CLUMPS on my pillow. I liken the clumps to small pony tails that just appear to fall out.
The hair doesn’t break off in the strand, it’s as if the scalp just releases the hair from the root and POOF! There are chunks of hair on your pillow. It can fall out when you lean over to brush your teeth, it can fall out with a small breeze, or simply taking a hat off. The scalp is on strike and closed for business.
Hair Loss: It’s A Process
When the girls got home from school that day, I told them, “it’s time to give mommy a haircut!” We went into the bathroom and I sat on a stool. Each had her own pair of scissors. NOTE: giving a seven and four year old scissors was probably not the best parenting decision. They began cutting. The sheer joy on their faces was priceless. It was probably one of the most memorable moments for them. How often does mom hand a child scissors and say “give me a haircut please!” And wouldn’t you know it, they didn’t do half bad!
The next morning, I had an appointment at a salon with a private room. I dreaded this day. I had purchased my wig and bought some ugly, cancer-looking scarves. I was “prepared.” Two of my sisters-in-law and Juliet came with me. We laughed and chatted in the car on the way there and continued as they showed us to the private room.
I sat in the chair while they sat on the couch behind me. I don’t remember what we talked about, either because it was not my favorite day, or from lingering effects of chemo brain. The stylist started shaving and I just stopped talking and got quiet. My eyes welled up with tears – tears I fought hard to choke back. My friends noticed I had gotten quiet and stood around me. They held my hands and said things they thought would make me feel better.
“You look like a badass…you look like you’re in control…you look like GI Jane…” and I thought to myself “Well, if I wanted to look like GI Jane, I didn’t need cancer!” That’s when I knew people mean well, but sometimes they just don’t know what to say.
When we arrived home, Travis and the girls wanted to see me. Reluctantly I took off my hat and showed them. All three were in shock. That was the only time during my first round of chemo that ANYONE saw me without hair. (Well, that is, except for the jerk at the DMV who made me take my scarf off for my handicap ID picture.)
My scalp was sore and I rubbed it a lot (not uncommon for a cancer patient). The hairstylist recommended 100% coconut oil to help decrease dryness and promote hair regrowth. And this advice was a God-send!
One of the things I hated about being sick was looking the part. I hated the chemo hats and scarves on the market. I happened into J.Crew one day and looked at their scarves. I went into the dressing room to see if it was long enough and… OMG! I hit the cancer patient jackpot! They were the perfect length, they were soft and there were many options.
Seeing a woman with a scarf can be confusing and even scary for a child, so I wanted to make sure both girls’ classmates were comfortable with me (mainly because, let’s face it, kids can be mean!). Maddie was in second grade when my hair started coming back and the kids were all losing their front teeth. So when the kids would ask to see my “fluthy hair,” how could I say no!? “Mrs. Amy, your hair is so “softh and fluthy” is about the cutest thing ever!
Many of the parents were correcting the kids at first, but I assured them that is was okay. I wanted everyone to be comfortable around me.
After Cancer Treatment
My hair continued to grow back. Dark and curly…and gray. I could tame it with products until the humidity spiked. When it was humid out, my hair looked like a poodle bouffant! I hated it! Oh! And definitely don’t try to straighten it! You will look like the cat in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation after it bit into the Christmas tree lights.
Once it got longer, I started highlighting, putting my natural blonde back in, and then I was able to round-brush the curls out. Whoop! I was back to “normal.” However, this transition was, and still to this day is, hard. I would often bump into people whom I hadn’t seen in a while and I would have to introduce myself. It’s not their fault. I looked wildly different. Thank goodness I was wearing a name tag at my 20-year high school reunion!
My hair was past my shoulders before my cancer came back the summer of 2017. Maddie and Cinclare knew the drill…we can give mom a haircut! I started treatment about two weeks before Maddie went to sleep away camp for a week. I told her I was going to try to hold out until she came back. Unfortunately, I couldn’t. So Cinclare gave me a haircut. Once she was done, I closed the door and shaved my head myself. No tears. Just did it. I came out and went about my evening.
The next morning, we arrived to pick Maddie up and she saw me wearing my scarf, and I could see the disappointment in her eyes. She gave me a big hug and I apologized for not being able to wait. She let me off easy.
My hair is now shoulder length. Still curly, dark and gray. I know my hair will never be long and blonde again. However, the shock and awe of being bald is a thing of the past. Plus, the girls are older now, and maybe the next time we play beauty shop, it might just look good!