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Hair loss can be one of the most difficult and feared side effects of chemotherapy. Upon learning we will lose our hair, we immediately begin anticipating our hair loss and its impact on ourselves and others. Feeling helpless in anticipation of our hair loss can cause or increase feelings of reluctance, fear, and depression. By researching options, making deliberate choices, and taking specific actions to determine our appearance without hair, we gain a greater sense of control over our changing appearance. A greater sense of control over our appearance may help motivate us to take control of other aspects of our lives that contribute to a greater quality of life during cancer treatment. Clearly, it is not "just hair."
Our hair is part of us, part of our feminine identity, part of our style and image. Without our hair, we feel stripped of our identity, and in the context of cancer, it often feels like we are systematically being stripped of ourselves. Hair loss strips us of our anonymity at a time when we desperately want to maintain a sense of normalcy. In the words of one anonymous respondent to 4women.com's "Emotional Side of Hair Loss" survey:
"Hair loss is a neon sign saying 'I have cancer' that makes feeling healthy psychologically more difficult."
Your hair will almost certainly grow back, but that doesn't mean losing it is inconsequential. Grieving the loss of our hair does not make us vain or demonstrate a lack of appreciation for our life. On the contrary, losing our hair is a very visual reminder of the disease that is threatening our lives. By taking control of our image without hair, we can increase our self-confidence, build our sense of optimism, and cultivate a greater sense of self-empowerment. How do you take control over your image without hair? Great question!
There are numerous ways you can determine your appearance without hair. From wearing wigs, hats, scarves or other headwear, or experimenting with combinations of all such options, you can determine which feels right for you. In most cases, women find a combination of head wear options suits their needs and lifestyle. You might feel fine going completely bald. Be prepared by having an assortment of headwear items on hand before your hair starts falling out so that you are not caught off-guard and unprepared to face the world. Comfort is key. Keep in mind that you may be wearing your head wear much or most of the day for many consecutive days, so make sure it's neither too tight, nor requires constant readjustments to stay put. Have a soft cap on hand for nights. Even the warmest nights can feel chilly without hair.
Regardless of which headwear options you ultimately choose, most women recommend cutting your hair before beginning chemo and then shaving your head once your hair starts to fall out. Doing so can minimize the visual impact of watching your hair fall out in handfuls and also allows you to get a head start on adjusting to your new image.
Accessorize. While we tend to focus on the loss of the hair on our head, chemotherapy can also cause the loss of eyebrows and eyelashes. Fashion accessories, such as colorful neck scarves, jewelry (especially earrings), and fashionable headwear can effectively reframe our faces and brighten our image.
Remember, when you feel good about yourself, your burdens seem lighter. Be true to yourself. Give yourself permission to grieve and to feel your feelings. You are not alone.
Susan Beausang is the President of 4women.com and designer of the patented beaubeau® head scarf, a fashionable scarf designed specifically for women and girls with hair loss. The beaubeau® unites the worlds of fashion and medical hair loss. 4women.com's mission is to help women and girls cope with the emotional upheaval of medical hair loss with dignity and confidence and to advocate for greater attention to the emotional impacts of medical hair loss among medical professionals and the public. Susan is a Previvor, having undergone a prophylactic double mastectomy and oophorectomy upon learning she carries the BRCA2 mutation, which translates into an estimated 85 percent lifetime chance of developing breast cancer. She is also an Alopecian, having lost all of her hair due to alopecia areata, an autoimmune condition that causes permanent hair loss. Susan strives to be a source of strength and hope for women and girls with medical hair loss.