One of the most awful side effects from chemo is losing your hair, especially for us ladies. And what was the worse part of hair loss? Losing my eyebrows and eyelashes, too. But looking back, there were ways to make the hair loss far less traumatic, if there is such a thing. Here are the things I wish I had known back when my hair started falling out in clumps and, faced with the inevitable, I had it all shaved off and started wearing wigs.
- Prior to hair loss, my scalp would feel hot, my scalp would throb, and I had headaches. I finally realized that it didn't mean I had a brain tumor-- it was my scalp getting ready to shed its hair.
- Waking up and finding clumps of hair on my pillow was unnerving. There was no denying the fact that I was going to lose my hair and it was time to just shave it.
- Going with a really short haircut prior to going bald would have provided a nice transition. I didn't want to have short hair, though, and I put it off. I always had very long hair. It helped define who I was. Going with a short 'do was just unfathomable. But the reality is that short hair is cute, I was going to lose how I "used" to look in favor of a "new, different, and more resilient" me. I should have embraced that reality and learned to love it. What was the alternative anyway?
- When picking a wig, I should have picked a very short wig that I liked. Trying on wigs was actually very fun. But I wanted to look like the "old me" so I purchased four wigs, all with long hair. Long haired wigs are a pain in the neck. They tangle easily and I became obsessed with running my fingers through those wigs constantly trying to work out the tangles. It was really annoying. Short haired wigs are far more comfortable and easy to maintain- trust me! Plus, when my hair started growing back and I pitched the wig, I rocked a short hairstyle anyway. I should have just gone with a short style from the beginning.
- Purchase several wigs. Because every few weeks, you'll need to take your wig to get it cleaned, conditioned and styled. It oftentimes means leaving your wig with the stylist for a few days. Also, it's wise to buy wigs that, say, have a cap attached, or a headband. They are fantastic when working out, going for walks or hikes, or simply hanging out poolside in the summer. They can also be comfortable.
- There's a chance you'll lose your eyebrows. I spent a fortune on fake paste-on eyebrows. And they looked completely ridiculous! I looked like Groucho Marx and it was so obviously fake. Do not even bother with them! I hate to admit to this but I just drew them on with a pencil. At first I was shaky with drawing them in but I got really good at it soon enough. Since it was summer, the eyebrows tended to melt. I made sure I didn't touch my eyebrows and that I "refreshed" them frequently. I carried my trusty eyebrow pencil with me everywhere I went. The good news is that my eyebrows grew back in very quickly, like within a few weeks.
- There's a chance you'll lose your eyelashes. I purchased falsies and only used them when I had to. Most of the time, I simply used a tick black eyeliner as close to my eyelid I also used sunglasses or tinted reading-type glasses everywhere I went. One had to look very closely to realize that I had no eyelashes. And when I was at a wedding reception, I sucked it up and wore the uncomfortable fake eyelashes. But they are not easy to get on just right, just sayin'. So be prepared to practice a lot. Give yourself time and remain calm as best you can. The good news is that my eyelashes grew back within a month and they were longer and thicker than they ever were pre cancer. I'm often asked if I have eyelash extension. Nope- they're all real, thanks, chemo! I guess?
- Massage and condition your scalp. Your head needs it and will help stimulate hair growth. I went to a beauty college once a week and got a scalp massage for $5. I rubbed organic coconut oil on my scalp every morning. It helped.
- When your hair starts growing back, your wig won't fit so well anymore. My wig started sliding off with alarming ease. I really worried that with a little wind, I'd end up hairless and embarrassed. I wore a hat to help. Soon it was time to be brave and go without the wig. It felt weird, scary, and AMAZINGLY LIBERATING when that happened.
- Be prepared for very tight curls! I went from straight hair to extremely curly. I didn't know what to do with it. I went back to the beauty college and started letting them shampoo and style it two times a week. It was very inexpensive and it was worth the time and money.
- When my hair grew a few inches, I added hair extensions. In an instance, I had long hair again It's been about 18 months and I have just four hair extensions now and my hair is long(er) and healthy. Yay!
Losing hair is tough but it will grow back. I look at my new hair and while it's different and I still struggle with the curls, I'm so happy that it's here. It's a sign of how far I've come in this Myeloma Journey.
about the author
Lizzy Smith was diagnosed with myeloma in 2012 at age 44. Within days, she left her job, ended her marriage, moved, and entered treatment. "To the extent I'm able, I want to prove that despite life's biggest challenges, it is possible to survive and come out stronger than ever," she says.