Monday, January 2, 2012

the bald and the beautiful

Chemo is one of the most dreaded words. There are no positive associations that immediately leap to mind upon hearing the word, "chemo." The word evokes images of emaciated, wearied cancer patients devoid of hair and exuding a sense of utter exhaustion. Gaunt and pallid, their faces haggard and drawn from sleepless nights and varying stages of malnutrition; dusky semi-circles clinging to the underside of blood-shot eyes.

It's possible I have a tiny flair for the dramatic. I consider it one of my most under-valued of attributes. ;)

As previously discussed, my own associations regarding chemo were probably even less positive than most peoples'. Having stepped into the cancer-treatment fray despite my deep-seated presumptions, I can testify to having developed a greater appreciation for the all the complexities of this mildly-barbaric treatment.

About the time I was beginning chemo, I embarked on a good-sized pity party with all the, "woe is me," you could possibly tolerate. And then a bit more.

Chemo, and its subsequent misery, terrified me. And don't even get me started on the whole hair loss bit.

Losing your hair is traumatic enough, but for a woman it has to be significantly more so.

I remember my chemo nurse, the brilliant Kathy, preparing me for what was to come. Just prior to beginning my first round of chemo, she stood in my room and, propping her hip against the counter, effected a soothing, but direct tone as she listed for me what to expect in the coming days/weeks/months.

Hair loss, as we all know, is a relative inevitability as the chemo that endeavors to kill stray cancer cells also happens to staunch hair growth. You not only don't grow hair, but you lose the hair you already possess.

The hair loss, she explained, typically took place within the first ten days or so, but everyone was different. That meant that my rounds which were spaced at three-week intervals, would see me only attending my very first treatment with any of my own hair.

Big. Fat. Bummer.

I was hoping for a longer transition. Or that maybe somehow having fewer rounds--as I only had four--might mean I could curtail the entire hair loss portion of cancer.

No such luck.

It was sort of an either or thing. Black and white. Yes or no. There was no sliding scale. No grading on a curve. No gray. No maybe.

And it that moment I had to jump on board. I had to leave the ever-ruminating, over-thinking Holl at the door and just dive in. If I hadn't, I probably still would be vacillating on the topic, even eight months later.

Act a little more, think a little less. Not a mantra for everyone, but gospel for me.

So I did.

Kathy educated me on the nuances of chemo hair loss. Here are some of the things she told me to expect:

  • Tingling in the days proceeding the most significant loss. I didn't really have this, but it's very common.
  • As the hair falls out and in the initial first few weeks of being bald the scalp can be hyper sensitive. This was super mild for me, but I know some people complain of it being unbearable.
  • Loss of all body hair. Okay FINALLY a chemo side effect I can get on board with. I didn't have to shave my legs for months! And, most people lose their lashes/brows, but I didn't.
Not that it would have mattered as I have drawn my spartan eyelashes on since the seventh grade and I've worn fake lashes for over twelve years. Ha! Take that, cancer. (Hey, I'll take victories where I can get them! ;))

The hair, when it did begin to come out, really came out. By the handful. My pillow and mattress looked like I had been grooming Wookies in my spare time.

above: Chewbaca, the most famous of wookies.

But the whole chemo/hair loss thing really was an exercise in just-doing-it-ness. You know...lots of biting of bullets and grabbing bulls by horns, etc.

And I did a couple of things that helped me overcome the inevitably frustrating impotence that accompanies cancer, particularly chemo.

  • I bought a stunning wig. Wigs aren't for everyone, but mine was a godsend! I made sure to buy it before losing my hair so as to ensure I was as objective and non-emotional as possible. I invested in a really great one. Forget whatever you think you know about wigs, NO ONE knew I was wearing one until I told them. More about that in a later post.
  • And I shaved my head. Once it became all patchy and I started to resemble more a junk-yard dog afflicted with mange, I decided to take control and have my mom shave my head for me.
The day I shaved my head, my little three-year-old nephew was visiting and he stood in rapt attention attempting to make sense of what I was doing. Upon finishing, he pointed to my head and said, "Caillou!" For those who don't know who Cailllou is, he's an animated character on children's programming who's bald. Like Charlie Brown. I obtained the moniker, Cailllou that day and it was all my nephew insisted on calling me, up until a couple of months ago, anyway.
above: Caillou


  1. You looked amazing in that wig. Hope your hair comes back thicker and stronger than ever. Love you Hollie!

  2. You are AMAZING! Thanks SO much for sharing your information with all of us out in the blogger world- I cannot believe you have had to go through all of this. I can't say I know what I would do but I can think I know- I would shave my head as well.. Though I don't know your feelings, because I have not gone through it- I feel for you in a different way. Please know how sorry I am you have had to go through this, what a beautiful girl you are. Please keep us posted!

  3. Your nurse seems to have been a great help in your preparation for the treatment. Hair loss and tender scalp are side effects of the medication. Although there are several treatments that have been investigated as possible to prevent hair loss, none has been absolutely effective. But hair transplant is suggested after chemotherapy, if the person finds it hard to grow his/her hair back.

    Paola Basilio