GUEST POST: Hair After Chemo by Sarah

EDITOR’S NOTE: Beautypendence is proud to bring you this three-part series about growing back hair after chemo. (See first post about my mom’s experience here.) Sarah and I were in the same arts administration graduate program at the University of Oregon from 2003-2005. Not only is Sarah an outstanding museum professional, she’s a wife and mother of two super cool kids. Plus, we have Sarah to thank for this brilliant blog series idea! I know you’ll enjoy reading her story below, written in her own beautiful words.

The idea of me writing a post for a beauty blog is sure to have anyone who knows me rolling in the aisles. I’m about the last person on earth anyone would expect to do such a thing!! I’m renowned for telling my hairstylist “Give me something easy,” and it took cancer to really give me an appreciation for makeup. A few months ago I wrote to Jenn, goddess of all things beauty related, and encouraged her to write a post about growing-out hair. Staying true to her desire to keep this blog very first hand, she asked me to do so instead. So here it goes…

University of Oregon Arts Administration Masters Class of 2005

University of Oregon Arts Administration Masters Class of 2005 – Sarah is in the back row with glasses

My experience began in early April 2011 when I found a lump during a breast self-exam. The lump in my stomach when I told my husband, Billy, what I’d found was easily 1000 times bigger than the 1 cm tumor that the radiologist confirmed as invasive ductal carcinoma on April 26th. June 1st was surgery day and I didn’t know what would happen after that. Many people automatically associate cancer with chemo, but not all patients with breast cancer require chemo. That being said, chemo was my next step because the surgery revealed that some cancerous cells had made their way into my lymph nodes.

After consulting with my amazing oncologist and discussing various options and side effects, I started chemo on July 21. On August 11 began shedding like a dog in spring. Others had warned me that it was quite possible that my hair would start coming out in clumps—it never did, I just proceeded to shed for the next several weeks. I felt very self-conscious about the shedding and quickly took to wearing scarves over the pixie cut I’d gotten six weeks earlier. Because I have a ridiculous amount of hair you couldn’t really tell I was losing any, but I just couldn’t handle the mess.

Sarah with short hair, post-chemo

In early September I finished the first four rounds of chemo and switched to another drug, Taxol. I would have 12 infusions of it over the next 12 weeks. This drug also causes hair loss, and within a few weeks my scalp was visible. At this point I decided it was time to shave it—I’d rather have no hair than the thinning mess on my head. And so with much laughter and a few tears, Billy shaved my head while my son took pictures.

Losing my hair honestly didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would. I did get tired of wearing scarves and I definitely wasn’t prepared for having a cold head all the time (I slept in a cap knit by my wonderful mother-in-law), but it was what it was. My last round of chemo was administered on December 1st and by the end of January I was asking a friend to help even out my returning hair—the stuff that didn’t fall out was so much longer than the new stuff that it was ridiculous.

As it grew back in, the first year was fine. By March I had enough hair that I felt ok going without a hat or scarf. It was still sparse by my standards, but I wasn’t bald! The best part was that I had great chemo curls and was really enjoying the short curly look and, true to form, the ease with which I could do my hair. There were times where I did look like a freshly shorn sheep and other times where I sported a pretty good imitation-afro first thing in the morning, but all it all, it wasn’t bad.

The second year has been much more challenging. As I officially reached the point where the back and sides were noticeable longer than the top my stylist, Ali, was a great asset. She has been good about trying to get my hair to do what I want it to while working with curls that turned into unpredictable waves as they grew out. Ali set me up with a short cut that kept the sides and back tight while leaving the top longer. That strategy allowed the top to catch up with the back and sides over the course of about six months. By June of 2013 the top had caught up with the sides and I officially had a very short bob. Now, I’ve made it to a longer asymmetrical/stacked bob on the way to something a little longer.

As my hair has gotten longer it has lost a lot of the curls but I would say my hair is definitely a little more than wavy. It has also gotten far drier and daily shampooing is definitely not on the agenda! It has taken a lot of getting used to, but I’ve really learned to embrace both products and tools. As Jenn will tell you I got through grad school without a lot of gel or hairdryer use—now I can’t imagine going without at least one of those if I’m planning to leave the house! I have even been known to flatiron my hair on a semi-regular basis.

Sarah with short curly hair, post-chemoHaving cancer and losing my hair taught me to look at myself in a different way. While I never quite committed to employing all the tricks I learned in the Looking Good Feeling Great class, I do fully understand (and usually make use of) the value of a good moisturizer, some carefully applied concealer, lip gloss, mascara, and brow pencil (yep, the eyebrows and eyelashes fell out too).

I think cancer changed how I feel about myself in some ways. I’ve always been pretty self-conscious about my appearance, but months of wearing scarves and then many more months of super-short hair allowed me to look more at the assets I do have (I love my eyes) and not worry about my generally unruly hair. In fact, two of the pictures of me I like the most were taken during the months during and immediately following treatment (but before I had a whole lot of hair)—I look happy and that is the best look of all!

Practical tips for growing your hair out after chemo or radiation:

  1. Don’t be afraid to shave it all down to an even length if it not everything fell out and you find yourself with an uneven mess.
  2. Wash gently with a very mild shampoo at first. If you have to use a dandruff shampoo to help with flaking issues be judicious. I actually used ½ Head and Shoulders and ½ Fructis Nourishing.
  3. Don’t scratch—yes, the itchy scalp is normal and it will go away.
  4. Don’t be surprised by a different texture or color. It will change along the way.
  5. Find a good stylist, preferably one who has helped other people through this process.
  6. Barrettes and headbands are your friend—use them to your advantage.
  7. Be patient. There will be lots of bad hair days, but it is just hair!
  8. Avoid the mullet at all costs. Sacrificing length at the back may seem like a crazy idea, but it is so much better than a mullet!
  9. Take pictures along the way.
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