Hair loss, curls and other fun with chemotherapy

November 21, 2009 

On Thursday, I got my first haircut of 2009.

Nearly a year ago, I was learning about my chemotherapy treatment at Columbia Basin Hematology & Oncology in Kennewick. My nurse said rather matter-of-factly, "Now, you know you'll lose your hair."

No, actually I didn't but I had wondered about it because I didn't really understand why hair falls out during cancer treatment. As it turns out, it doesn't always; rather, it depends on which drugs one is given.

My first chemo treatment was Dec. 12, 2008, at the Tri-Cities Cancer Center. My nurse told me my hair probably would start to fall out in about two weeks. She suggested getting a silk pillowcase for comfort and going ahead and shaving my head when I felt mentally prepared.

Hair loss is known as "alopecia" and occurs because some chemo drugs damage hair follicles. In the months to follow, I began to hear from friends that my hair might come back differently, with more than one joking it would return red and curly. As I had a reddish hue as a child (something that remains in my beard), I thought that might be entirely possible. I asked one of the nurses, who explained that the way the follicle is damaged can cause hair to come back wavy and a bit (or completely) different.

I began to notice my hair coming out Dec. 26. Within three days, it was coming out by the handful. On Dec. 31, I headed to our family hair stylist and asked her to shave it. My colleague Bethany Lee accompanied me with camera in hand. As I like to say about the newspaper business, "life is content" and I wanted to chronicle this.

I decided that, as long as my head was going to be shaved, I might as well have a bit of fun with it, so I asked my hair stylist to give me a mohawk first. For about one minute, I looked like I'd fit right in at a Sex Pistols concert.

But then it was gone, and so was my hair, which was light brown with a bit of gray.

My beard went next. I'd already shaved it down to a goatee, but the hair on my chin was coming out pretty quickly by the first week of January, so I went clean-shaven for the first time in many, many years.

Although I didn't really notice it until looking later at photos, my eyebrows also thinned considerably, as did hair on my chest, legs, armpits and, er, elsewhere on my body.

Losing my hair was almost as much of a shock to family and friends as it was to me. My brother flew in from Michigan several times during my treatments, and when he came in January, he was rather stunned to see my bald head, later mentioning that was difficult to handle because it was stark visual evidence of what I was going through.

My 5-year-old daughter, on the other hand, found it all rather fun. When I would get home from work - still wearing a stocking cap - I would tell her, "My hair grew back today!" She would pull the cap off my head and say, "Your a big joker, Daddy!"

Soon after I shaved my head, I showed up at a Kiwanis lunch. One friend at my table hadn't heard what I'd been going through and asked if I'd lost a bet or something. I replied, "Chemotherapy is a heck of a drug," to which he was shocked and more than a little embarrassed, but I told him not to worry about it.

Once the top of my head was unprotected, I better understood the joys of stocking caps. At first, it was because I was slightly self-conscious about my baldness. But ultimately, my head got cold rather easily because it hadn't been so naked since I was an infant. My wife brought home a couple of caps from WSU (one crimson and one gray, of course), and a dear friend from Kiwanis gave me a set of caps to keep my dome warm, as this was the middle of winter.

One thing I didn't expect was that I would need to continue to shave my head. A couple of weeks after shaving my head, I noticed some stubble. My brother-in-law has shaved his head for years and suggested HeadBlade products, which I found at our neighborhood drug store. I learned how to give myself a pretty good shave over the next three months.

One side benefit I also didn't expect was "curing" a bit of nagging psoriasis I'd had on my scalp. I'd had a couple of patches of it on my head for a few years and had been using a variety of treatments to keep it in check. Chemotherapy might seem like a rather radical treatment for psoriasis, and I don't know that the two are actually related. I suspect that having the skin on my head exposed (and constant lotion being rubbed in) helped it vanish - and so far not return.

I never really got used to being bald, and I didn't like the look. But one thing cancer taught me is that the details in life don't matter that much. Plus, if receiving effective treatment to battle cancer meant losing my hair, I would choose a healthy body.

My last chemo treatment was March 31. I shaved my head for the last time April 10, the day we finalized our daughter's adoption in Benton County Superior Court. From then until Thursday, the hair on my head grew with reckless abandon.

By about June, my closely cropped hair was showing differences from its prior look and feel. First of all, it felt soft, like a bunny rabbit at the fair. It also had a rather interesting color structure. The tips of my hair took on a frosted look, sort of a grayish brown. One dear friend mentioned that she and many other women pay a lot of money for that look.

As it got longer, I noticed a waviness in my hair. By September, it was downright curly, especially on the sides and in the back. On Nov. 1, I ran into an acquaintance I hadn't seen in more than a year who mentioned she liked my new hairstyle. She had no idea what had happened to me in the past 12 months and was a bit taken aback when I said, "I call this my '$100,000 Chemotherapy Look.' "

It also was considerably more gray. It had been going in that direction before cancer, so this didn't bother me a lot.

For the past couple of months, I've harbored thoughts of holding out through the holidays before cutting my hair if only so I could say I went a year without a haircut. But it was getting entirely unruly. Even when wet, the curls would not stay flat. The last straw was in the past week, when I donned a golf hat before heading out, with my thick, gray, curly hair sticking out in all directions. My wife said I looked like a trucker with a mullet. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it is not a look I'm going for. So Tuesday I called our hair stylist and by Thursday she was shearing me like a sheep.

I've read that post-chemo hair might eventually go back to the way it was - or it might stay this way for the rest of my days. Frankly, it doesn't matter. With or without hair, with or without curls, I'm just glad to be rid of cancer.

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