Bald or Bust: Working through the psychological impact of hair loss

For weeks, I’ve been pep-talking myself into acceptance of the inevitable baldness that comes from (most) chemo treatments.

Save for a couple of years of short styles during the early 90s and right around the time I had my babies, my hair has always been shoulder-length or longer.

L: me in 1990
R: me in 2019

Since my first cupcake session on June 14th, I have been terrified that my hair would start falling out without warning. I envisioned sitting in a restaurant and looking down to see a clump of hair bounce off my shoulder and land on my plate.

But my locks stayed firmly anchored and for a while and I thought maybe, just maybe—despite the oncologist telling me that one of the side effects of both Taxotere and Cytoxan was hair loss—I would defy the odds and hang on to my tresses.

Wishful thinking.

If you’re heading down this path, know this: You will have fair warning of when it starts. You will notice one day that your hair has lost its lustre. You might feel a bit of tingling in your scalp and you will definitely notice an increasing amount left behind in your hairbrush. It will not, just out of the blue, detach from your head and land in your pasta.

On the day I could no longer deny my impending baldness, I packed a bag and drove to my sister’s house in Lacombe. My sister, Cheryl, is a hairdresser and if anyone was going to help me ease into a state of hairlessness, it would be her. On Canada Day she cut my hair to within an inch and a half of its dying life.

I stared into the mirror and saw my mother.

July 1, 2019

I was not ready for this. I felt so exposed. So old. If I felt like this now, how would I handle zero hair altogether?

With a short ‘do, I feel the automatic need to accessorize like hell: big earrings and bold lipstick for starters and eyebrows that will have to be on fleek 24/7. I will wear a scarf around my neck, a hat upon my head, bangles on my wrist and most certainly, an array of eyewear (the bigger, the better). Really, the options are endless.

But seriously, what is our deal with hair?

My sister, now in her 39th year of hairdressing said most of the women who come to her with long hair, would look adorable in a pixie cut, but you could die trying to convince a woman to go from long hair to super short.

Way too often when talking about going from long to short, a woman will say, “He LOVES my long hair.” (I’ve said that myself. Ugh.) I’ve also heard women say, “Oh, he’d kill me if I cut my hair.” Let’s hope that’s an exaggeration, but it shows how deeply we are tied to our roots and how deeply hair speaks to our femininity.

“If a man told me I couldn’t cut my hair, I’d shave it off, for sure,” said my sister but then, laughing, she added, “It’s my best feature! I have good hair; I get compliments on it. If you take that away, what would I get? ‘Oh, you have nice ankles!?’”

Hair is our crown. It is both a weapon and a treasure. It can empower and enslave. Hair is a security blanket and a statement. Hair is power.

When it comes to a woman’s hair, it can be both master and slave.

When my daughter, Erin, said she was going to shave her head in support of me, I tried to dissuade her. I appreciated that she wanted to do it, but it was unnecessary, really. She wouldn’t listen. She was going to shave her head as an act of solidarity and that was that.

“You don’t have a choice in losing your hair,” Erin said to me as Cheryl ran the clipper over her head, “But I do. Plus, one day, if I ever have to go through chemo, then I won’t be terrified because I’ll at least know what it’s like to have no hair.”

I know. I have pretty awesome kids. Erin looked adorable with her short, glossy little “muskrat head”. I hoped that I looked half as good as her when the time came for me to shave mine.

My beautiful brave Erin.

Today, I woke up knowing my time had come.

I looked in the mirror and ran my fingers through my short hair. My scalp hurt more than ever and I grimaced at the amount of hair that came out in my hands. My usual thick hair was thin and drab and I could see white scalp peeking through here and there. The old clippers I had found in a drawer at my dad’s house felt heavy and cumbersome. I turned the power on, put the device up to my temple and ran it like a lawnmower above both ears. There was definitely no turning back.

I stepped back and considered the result. I actually liked the whitewall tires look.  I felt like a thug. I sent the picture to my daughter, Paige. She said I looked like a badass. My nephew said I’m very “punk looking”. It’s true, right? Give me a leather jacket, a kilt, and a safety pin through my nose and I’m there!

I wouldn’t have minded keeping this look for a few days, but I couldn’t stop with just the whitewalls; I had to keep going. I buzzed my entire head…and then I went into the shower and cried.

Putting a dagger right through the heart of Fear.

I didn’t recognize me. I looked SO strange. My head felt like soft Velcro all over. I figured I could probably run quicker now that there was less drag—that is if I was a runner but I hate running. My bike helmet will probably need to be tightened. My head feels so small. I feel so naked.

But then, I began to feel something different. Something like defiance. I felt empowered.

I was scared but I worked through that. I was angry at losing my long hair, but I dealt with that. I let go of the anger because I knew it wouldn’t do me any good.  I pushed through all the sadness and the terror and I came out the other side feeling pretty fantastic.

Scarves FTW

Today was tough but I know well enough by now that there is no triumph without struggle and pushing through the stuff that scares us is worth the reward. Always.

What I also know is that lipstick is going to be de rigueur, that’s for sure.

As for a wig? I’m not so sure that will be necessary.

#baldisbeautiful #faceyourfear #scarvesFTW #empowered #breastcancer #cupcakes

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Author: Twyla Campbell

World-wide wanderer, CBC Edmonton AM Restaurant Reviewer, Member of Edmonton’s Slow Food convivium, oenophile, epicurean explorer and a freelance writer whose works have appeared in several magazines and newspapers including More, Above & Beyond, Avenue (Edmonton), Up Here, Northern Flyer, Opulence, City Palate, the Edible Prairie Journal, The Edmonton Journal, Slow Food Canada, Lifestyle Alberta, and on Slow Food Edmonton’s website. Grant MacEwan University (Professional Writing Program) Bachelor of Applied Communications Degree (in progress). I’m a Tweeter @wanderwoman10

20 thoughts on “Bald or Bust: Working through the psychological impact of hair loss

  1. All of these looks were BADASS!
    Stunning. Strong. Sexy.
    Fierce and feminine!
    Wig schmig.
    There is perfection here.
    Xo

  2. Well done! You look great. I remember reaching that point when there was no denying it was time to shave it off. I actually got to the point where I enjoyed the freedom of not dealing with hair. It was freeing to not have the hair to hide behind. Plus, showered and out of the house in 10 minutes is sweet. Skip the wig, I never wore mine once. Take care.

    1. There is certainly some freedom in it, right!? Scary as hell, but once you push through that it’s like MOVE ASIDE MOTHERF***ER, I’M COMING THROUGH! lol

  3. I can’t imagine what you’re going through health wise. But as far as hairwise… I understand.
    Unlike the time I shaved my head, you look fantastic!

    Keep a positive attitude and don’t worry about how you look. It’s definitely going to be…😍😍

    1. I will certainly do my best at keeping a positive attitude! I’ve learned that a person can always dig deeper than they think they can. Strength of spirit is an amazing thing.

  4. Wigs in the summer time can be nasty. You look beautiful with and without hair. You are a beautiful woman. Period. Thank you again for sharing your story. I’m sure you heard it a 1,000 times, but the hair does come back. Your daughter is a star to support you this way too. You both will have your hair back before you know it.

    1. Thanks, Cathy 🙂 The psychological aspect of cancer has been a tough one, not just for me but for my kids, too. I’m so proud of Erin. She’s had a rough two years, too, and for her to do this was absolutely amazing.

    1. Thanks, Mifi … it’s terrifying not knowing what’s under all that hair: scars? Bumps? A constellation of moles?? And then you think, “who cares”. Seriously, losing mittfulls of hair was more traumatizing than the actual shave.

  5. Thank you for writing this. I’ve just started chemo and my hair is coming out in handfuls. I know I’ll be shaving it soon but when I’m ready. Everything you said resonates with me. The hair part has been so inexplicably hard. Best wishes to you

    1. Hi Amy, thanks for leaving a note here. There is so much of us wrapped up in our hair, right? Without it we don’t feel like we’re “us” anymore. I get it. Plus, walking around with a shaved head is the ultimate Stamp of Chemo. Ugh. BUT…I hope you look yourself straight in the eye and realize how fierce you are. By shaving your head, you’re putting yourself back in control. Imagine yourself as a warrior rushing headlong into the fight, screaming a battle cry and raising your sword against the enemy. OWN that bald head of yours. And just think how tough you’re going to be when you get through this. 🙂

  6. Your strength is amazing. I can’t even begin to imagine the struggles you are facing and I’d like to stay I understand but I don’t. Take care of you!

    1. Thanks Colleen 🙂 Sometimes I can’t even imagine, either. Honestly, I want to curl up in a ball, sometimes. I get strength from friends who offer support and encouragement and from people on social media who thank me for speaking bluntly about this. It’s helped to confront the breast cancer head on, but it took me a while to get in that headspace. A big part of this battle has been psychological. Glennon Doyle’s “First the Pain, Then the Rising” on Oprah’s Super Soul conversations really helped me a lot. I’d highly recommend watching it on YouTube or listening to it on the SuperSoul podcast.

  7. You are such an Inspiration! Thanks for putting it all out there! What a beautiful Brave soul you are! You ROCK IT!!!!

  8. I’m just in the midst of listening to you & Ryan Jespersen. I just had a mammogram a week & a half ago and now (tomorrow) I have to get a breast ultrasound – something that has never been necessary before. I googled the ultrasound, so I think I’m prepared to hear the word cancer. I figure, at 60, just take the boob. But, listening to you, I never thought of the radiation and/or chemo. I never thought of the hair loss.
    Thank you for being honest and open.

    1. Hi Kathy… you’re welcome. I hope for all the best for you. Just remember, every treatment path like every diagnosis is different and that most importantly, Cancer (if you do indeed hear that word) is NOT a death sentence. Good luck and fingers crossed for you. xo

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