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kottke.org posts about breast cancer

Say hello to chemo and goodbye to bald

posted by Susannah Breslin   Mar 17, 2015

The New York Times would like to tell you how to keep your hair during chemo.

Hair loss is one of the most obvious side effects of cancer treatment. Now, a growing number of breast cancer patients are freezing their scalps as a way to preserve their hair during chemotherapy.

The hair-saving treatment, widely used in Europe, requires a specialized frozen cap worn tightly on the head before, during and for a couple hours after a chemotherapy session. The method can be time consuming, expensive and uncomfortable, but numerous women swear by the results.

I was vaguely aware of this option when I was getting ready to undergo the chemo in early 2012. I recall researching it, but I never looked into it seriously. I wonder how the experience would’ve been different had I not emerged from it looking like this:

susannah-breslin-bald.jpg

Clearly, I wasn’t a happy camper.

When I was originally diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer in November of 2011, we didn’t know whether or not I would have to do chemotherapy. But after I had surgery, we knew that I would. Previously, I’d thought, Hey, what’s a little hair? Of course, when you’re told you’re going to go bald, that’s another story. I cried. Not because I was going to lose my hair, but because I would lose my hair and then everyone would know.

I went wig shopping, but I never bought one. The American Cancer Society sent me a hideous free brunette wig that showed up one day in a brown envelope in the mail, and I stuck it in a drawer. I didn’t wrap a scarf around my head like Elizabeth Taylor. Sometimes, I wore my husband’s USMC baseball hat. More often than not, I walked around exposed: I was six-two, I was bald, and I was angry. I felt humiliated, but I did it anyway. I hated that I was sick, yet I was hellbent on refusing to hide the fact that I was. I startled people, and eventually it dawned on me that I wasn’t me anymore, I was The Sick Person, and what everyone saw when they saw me was the looming specter of human frailty.

As far as chemo, it seemed like enough to go through it — the port in the chest, the needle in the hole, the free fall of the drugs — without freezing my head at the same time. But that was me. The cancer fled. My hair grew back. That was that.