It was official; the malignant tumour in my right breast, together with 19 lymph nodes had been removed, so chemotherapy was next. As a sensible mother of three, working full time as managing director of a PR consultancy in Essex, there were some very practical questions that had to be answered: How many sessions will I have? How long does each one last? Can I carry on working? How will I feel? What are the side effects? What about my weight? Can I still drink wine? But the only question I truly wanted an answer to was: Will I lose my hair?
If the script had called for it, like Natalie Portman, I’d have shaved my head; if I’d been an ancient Egyptian, where being completely hairless was de rigueur, ditto; if I’d been Britney… well, maybe not Britney… for most of us keeping our hair on is a number one priority. When I realised there was a chance I might lose my crowning glory, I felt full-scale terror. I love my hair, it frames my face, softens my features; I really couldn’t imagine being without it; I even began to sympathise with all those men I’d ever berated for their comb-overs, my dad included.
I’d been told that, with the chemotherapy drugs prescribed, there was a 99.9% certainty I’d lose the lot. I was also told it was likely to happen around two and half weeks after my first chemo session. Well I knew in my bones I’d hang on to every last strand, but on the off chance that my surgeon, my oncologist, my oncologist’s PA, my chemotherapy nurses and a good friend (whose hair had just grown back after treatment with identical drugs) were right, I should be prepared.
If I wanted to carry on as normally as possible, I’d need to look as normal as possible. I wasn’t prepared to try the bald look (blessed with perfect features I might have thought otherwise), and I’m not into scarves, so I’d need a wig. My hairdresser recommended I make an appointment at wig and hairpiece specialist, TrendCo, in Notting Hill and even picked out some styles she thought would suit me. One of my sisters came with me, not just for moral support, but also to prevent me coming out looking like Hayley Cropper from Coronation Street or even Dolly Parton. Don’t get me wrong, their wigs suit their personalities but they’re clearly wigs.
Once inside this emporium, I took my time and listened to the invaluable advice of the assistant. I kept narrowing the choices down and eventually went for a shortish, chunky cut with plenty of highlights and height. She was called Roni. The assistant trimmed the wig while I was wearing it so that it worked better with my features. I have to admit, even without makeup and wearing my worst comfy gear, I looked pretty good.
So I was organised when, exactly 19 days after my first chemotherapy session, the “will/won’t it?” suspense was over. I was at a meeting with a client, a rather long one as it turned out, and every time I moved my head, I became aware that some of my hair was slowly floating down onto my shoulders. When I say “some” that really doesn’t describe the disconcertingly large amounts that were beginning to fall out. But I didn’t panic, and I didn’t want to put my client in an awkward position (we had only just won the business). By keeping my head very, very still I managed to arrest the fallout temporarily and, at the end of the meeting, walked very carefully back to the car. The area behind the driver’s seat resembled the floor of a hairdressing salon; my shoulders now had fur epaulettes. It had started. I was surprised that I didn’t feel more anxious than I did, but I had so much to do; I was taking the children to London for my sister’s 40th birthday party that evening.
When I got home I tied a very large scarf around my head, turban style. That scarf remained in place during the journey to London and throughout the night until I presented myself to a hairdresser the next morning and asked her to shave my head. Well, I was trying to ask her to shave my head, but I couldn’t get the words out, so I broke down instead. Up until this moment I had felt in complete control, now I knew I was definitely losing my hair I could actually feel the fear. The hairdresser was a wonderful, gentle Geordie, who had obviously dealt with many women like me. She told me that shaving my head would be too much of a shock for my children and me, and gave me an Annie Lennox instead. The more she cut off, the more I cried. I’d had short hair in the past, but as short as this style was going to be, there would be no style at all within the next few weeks. I felt ugly, unfeminine but, most of all, very exposed.
At my sister’s I showered, put my face on, put my dress on then put Roni on. I preened a little and was very pleasantly surprised. I actually looked better wearing a wig than I did with my own hair, not just my face, the whole outfit. I took a deep breath before joining the party; I knew I would be the focus of a lot of attention as my family and friends were all aware of my cancer and treatment, but they didn’t know I would be wearing a wig. The compliments on how well I looked came thick and fast, and I graciously accepted them all. I experienced a real high later when I learned that not one guest realised my hair wasn’t my own. It was that good.
My new look received a similarly positive reception at work, but when I got home that night, despite my short back and sides, the hair loss seemed never ending and I couldn’t stand it. With the help of my sister and my children, we all took turns to shave my head. I now looked like Uncle Fester, from the Addams Family, after a diet. If I felt unfeminine before, it just got a little bit worse. And I still had to face London and clients.
I would normally be in London for meetings two or three times a week. That meant a 50-minute train journey from Colchester to London Liverpool Street Station, followed by a walk, tube or taxi ride. I waited on the platform; every now and then catching the reflection of my perfect hair on the glass covered posters, and felt a little more confident.
The PA system suddenly sprang to life and announced that a fast train was coming through and we should all stand back from the edge of the platform. The roar of the Norwich to London express was getting louder and louder, and before I could scream “toupee glue!” a violent and cruel wind began snatching at my head, doing everything it could to dislodge and then throw my pride and joy into the path of the train. I had to act fast. I snatched my mobile phone from my bag, clamped it to my ear, and held on to the hair closest to the phone with my thumb and forefinger, with my other hand, I pressed my fingers over the ear, ostensibly to hear better, but securing the other side of the wig at the same time. As the intercity train rocketed past in a noisy buffeting blur, I held on for dear life. It worked, but I knew my mobile phone was now a vital part of my outdoor uniform.
To this day some of my clients are completely unaware I wore a wig at all, and in truth, I sometimes forgot I was wearing one. At home though I wouldn’t wear a wig and a bald ‘me’ certainly had the power to shock. Initially I did feel a little embarrassed when people called at the door, mainly because of their instinctive reactions to my baldness – stutters, stunned silences, double takes, kerb falling – but I got used to the new-look me, and it wasn’t that bad.
Four sessions into chemotherapy my hair started growing again; but before I could feel any elation, my eyelashes and eyebrows did a disappearing act. It never rains…
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