I remember walking into my Oncologist’s office, sitting down, and asked, “How are you?”

“I’d like to complain,” I replied.

 

“Can you please tell me what the deal is?”

“I have lost all the hair off my head and underarms. My eyebrows and eyelashes are gone. And thank you for the best Brazilian ever! Somehow though – I still have hair on my lower legs? There’s something wrong? I can’t be wholly hairless and still have to shave my legs! You have to give me more chemo!”

To which he just shook his head, not entirely sure if I was serious or kidding.  I was kidding.

My hair is my Achilles Heel.  

If my house were burning down, I would grab my hairdryer!  I was in complete denial that I would lose my hair. Yes, I knew that losing your hair is a side effect of chemotherapy, but that happens to other people, not to me!

 I already had my first chemo session.  Hair was still firmly intact. I was convinced it was going to stay that way. However, there seemed to be more hair than usual on my hairbrush, and I had to renew my Driver’s Licence!

A routine trip to the Oncologist and I thought I should ask, just in case.

“So, when do you lose your hair?”

“After 3 weeks or after the second chemotherapy session.”

“Hmm….  So if I need to get a photo taken I should do it now?”

“Yes.”

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That was on Thursday.

On Friday, I washed my hair, and as I began to dry it with my beloved hairdryer, it started to fall out! I just needed enough hair left to get my license photo taken.  So without panicking, I very carefully and gently, pulling as little as I could, managed to dry my hair, without it all falling out. Phew!

I put on some makeup, drove straight to VicRoads and got the photo taken.  Mission accomplished.

Now what?

I sat in the car, staring out the window. I was at a crossroad, and I don’t mean the intersection kind. I mean it was time to decide whether to shave my head or let my hair shed like our dogs and cats in the summer season.

Deep down I knew I couldn’t bear watching my hair gradually become thinner. It would tear me apart. I didn’t want to do that to myself.

So, I telephoned my hairdresser and made an appointment to get my head shaved.

“A No. 1, please.”

I remember him looking at me with a ‘are you sure you want to do this’ look on his face.  

“Yes.”

I can still hear the humming buzz of the clippers.

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Across the road from the hairdressers was a hat and accessories shop.

I found myself a great black hat that could be dressed up or down.

I scheduled my chemotherapy for a Friday.  At the time, my daughter was primary school age so thankfully by Monday I was feeling well enough to get out of bed and take her to school. Leaving the house and being around people made me feel ‘normal’.

How did I explain my hair loss to my daughter? I said the doctor was going to give mum some medicine to make her well, but the medicine will make her hair fall out.  I explained that when mum stops taking the medicine, her hair will grow back. My daughter was absolutely fine with this explanation, and so were the kids at school. In fact, they had great fun sneaking up on me and taking off my hat, taking a peek at my bald head.  

P.S.  I was told I have a perfectly shaped head.

About four years ago the ‘cancer cap’ finally arrived in Australia, aka Cold Caps. The caps have an inbuilt cooling system that keeps the head at a temperature low enough to constrict the blood vessels in the scalp, minimizing the amount of chemotherapy reaching the hair follicles, enabling some hair to remain.

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The Breast Cancer Network reports that the Cold Caps are currently in Australia but not yet available at all hospitals and centers.  Please ask your Oncologist or Breast Care Nurse if your place of treatment offers them. If not, Aurora BioScience, the DigniCap distributor in Australia,  may be able to provide you with one. You can contact them on their website, http://aurorabioscience.com.au/oncology/dignitana/.

Penguin Cold Caps are available for hire in Australia directly from the US. Equipment rental is $595 per month and shipping is at a reduced rate if arranged with FedEx. The equipment includes crylon gel caps, crylon gel headbands, velcro fastening elastic straps and other items considered necessary.

However, Cold Caps are not recommended for those with lymphomas, leukemia, malignancies of the scalp, or those who will undergo radiation in the head or scalp area. The American Cancer Society describes Cold Caps as “scalp hypothermia” with the most common side effects being headaches, neck and shoulder discomfort, chills and scalp pain.

Everyone knows cancer as a life-threatening disease and chemotherapy as a poisonous treatment.

Yet no one seems to talk about the psychological effects of hair loss, especially for women. Hair is often associated with beauty and feminity, so losing that can have devastating effects on self-esteem. If there’s a way to prevent this, patients should know about it.  

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For women who have lost hair, I highly recommend the “Look Good Feel Better” programme.  

It’s a free, Australia-wide community service program dedicated to helping women undergoing treatment for cancer.  Their purpose is to help women manage the appearance-related side effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and help them restore their appearance and self-image. For further details go to www.lgfb.org.au.

 Chemotherapy 101:

– Drink lots of water

– Go to bed and try your best to sleep

– Take the anti-nausea tablets the hospital gives you

– Ginger will alleviate nausea – ginger tea is terrific

– Ask your local naturopath for their recommendations if you have one

– Arrange outings that you absolutely love and do them

– Arrange frozen meals, so you don’t have to even think about cooking!

– Be kind to yourself

– Most importantly, do what works for you

-The night before, I took the anti-nausea tablets, drank lots of water and went to bed.  

If you have kids, chat to their teachers. Your experience can be an opportunity for education.  In my situation the teachers were great too and used this as an opportunity to talk to the kids about alopecia.

My goal at The Road For Hope is to donate Cold Caps to every Chemo ward in Australia. Big Dream right? Well we believe in miracles and the help of a community is strong. Proceeds of our Road For Hope Tote Bags and products will go to our Cold Caps purchase fund.

Want to hear more? Check out our gorgeous interview on the truly amazing Stories From The Red Couch