Changes and Challenge

One breast cancer survivor offers tips for clearing the emotional hurdle that hair loss can present.

By Aarika Johnson

I was diagnosed with breast cancer on my twenty-fifth birthday. Within two months I had a lumpectomy, fertility treatments to freeze embryos, and chemotherapy. Two weeks after my first chemo treatment, I began to lose my hair. My baldness suddenly became a symbol of my sickness—a badge of honor, so to speak. I was going to be a survivor. I attended a Look Good…Feel Better meeting around this time, and that meeting was the first time I had spoken to other women with cancer. I began to feel the importance of what was happening in front of me. As a cosmetology student, I may someday have a woman in my chair, getting her last haircut before her treatment begins, and maybe I will be of some comfort to her that she will get through the obstacles ahead.

In the meantime I hope to share what I learned through Look Good…Feel Better about managing hair loss. Though the experience is challenging, it’s also a time for self-exploration and creativity. Read on to learn how you can cope with this aspect of your treatment.

Hair Loss

Many women lose their hair during cancer treatment. Some people lose all their hair, others experience thinning, and some do not lose any hair at all. Talking with your doctor about what to expect is critical to being prepared.  For example, hair loss caused by cancer treatment can occur on the scalp and in facial hair (loss of brows or lashes) and is almost always temporary. Your hair should grow back when treatments are over.

There are many creative, fashionable ways to deal with hair loss:

  • Talk with a hairdresser. He or she may suggest getting a shorter cut to make your hair look thicker. Or, if you are undergoing radiation therapy to your head, maybe you want to grow your hair longer so it is easier to style and cover thinning spots. If you feel comfortable without hair, you may consider the natural look. With a great pair of earrings and the right makeup, this can be a striking alternative.
  • Save a clipping of your hair. Use this to match the color if you get a wig.
  • Ask your hairdresser for styling advice when your hair starts growing back.
  • Use gentle shampoos and avoid chemical treatments (such as perms, coloring, and straightening) until your hair grows back.

The Inside Scoop on Wigs

Wigs can create the appearance of thick, healthy-looking hair. You can buy wigs in any color, either ready-made or custom-made just for you. Costs vary—try different types of wigs before you decide which to buy. Health insurance may pay for a wig if your doctor prescribes it as a “cranial prosthesis.”

  • Wigs give you a chance to try new hairstyles and colors. You can use this time to find the look that flatters you the best.
  • Comparison-shop. Wigs vary greatly in style, comfort, ease of care, and price. They may be machine-made or hand-tied, composed of human hair or custom synthetics or a blend of the two. Most wigs today look natural—even synthetic ones. Wigs made from human hair require more care and cost more than synthetic wigs. Newer wig styles are made with loose mesh caps and are cooler and more comfortable in warm weather.

Turbans and Scarves

Turbans look good and are inexpensive. Many women like to wear them at home to protect their scalp while sleeping or as a quick, versatile, fashionable look for everyday use or for a special occasion.

  • To give the look of fullness, wear a terrycloth turban or put a shoulder pad at the crown of the head under a turban or scarf.
  • Choose colors that flatter your skin tone.
  • Try different styles of turbans. For instance, some have bangs or hairpieces attached.
  • You can make a fashion statement by adding pins, clip earrings, flowers, or other creative items to your turban or scarf.

Scarves offer an infinite array of colors, styles, and textures.

  • A 32- to 36-inch square can cover the entire head or be folded into a band. You can make bands from smaller squares and oblong pieces as well.
  • Scarves come in many fabrics: silk scarves look elegant but tend to slip; cotton scarves offer a casual look, are cool, and are easy to keep tied; wool challis scarves drape beautifully but can be itchy. Most women choose scarves that match the season and the occasion.
  • Choose colors and patterns that look good with your outfit. Scarves need not match exactly. Sometimes two patterns of the same color yield a very interesting look.
  • Clothing styles with soft curves and draping lines work well with head wraps.

Hats

Hats are always in style and are a fun and fashionable option. They include sporty baseball caps, fedoras, and even chic berets. Some hats are sold with an attached hairpiece (such as a ponytail, a bob, or bangs). You should be able to find such hats at wig stores, hair salons, and department stores as well as in catalogs and online. You can also create your own look by wearing a hat over a wig, partial hairpiece, turban, or scarf.

This is a time when you can experiment and be creative with different looks and combinations of styles. Make it fun and interesting! For more ideas about creative hair alternatives, check out the Make-Over Steps and Hair Help sections of the Look Good…Feel Better Web site at www.lookgoodfeelbetter.org—and don’t miss the “Just for You” video clip!

A collaboration of the Personal Care Products Council Foundation, the American Cancer Society, and the National Cosmetology Association, Look Good…Feel Better® is a free, nationwide cancer support program created from the concept that if a woman with cancer can be helped to look good, her improved self-esteem will help her approach her disease and treatment with greater confidence. Look Good…Feel Better teams volunteer beauty professionals with female cancer patients in active treatment to provide practical tips during the two-hour group workshops on the use of cosmetics, wigs, and head coverings to camouflage the appearance-related side effects of cancer treatment. Women undergoing treatment who are interested in attending a Look Good…Feel Better workshop can find a local session by visiting www.lookgoodfeelbetter.org, by calling (800) 395-LOOK [5665], or by contacting the local chapter of the American Cancer Society.