The hard man haircut’s not me

It was official; the malignant tumour in my right breast, together with 19 lymph nodes had been removed, so chemotherapy was next. As a sensible mother of three, working full time as managing director of a PR consultancy in Essex, there were some very practical questions that had to be answered: How many sessions will I have? How long does each one last? Can I carry on working? How will I feel? What are the side effects? What about my weight? Can I still drink wine? But the only question I truly wanted an answer to was: Will I lose my hair?

If the script had called for it, like Sigourney, I’d have shaved my head; if I’d been an ancient Egyptian, ditto; if I’d been Britney… well, maybe not Britney… for most of us keeping our hair on is a number one priority. When I realised there was a chance I might lose my crowning glory, I felt a tiny pin prick of panic. I love my hair, it frames my face, softens my features; I really couldn’t imagine being without it; I even began to sympathise with all those men I’d ever berated for their comb-overs, my dad included.

I’d been told that, with the chemotherapy drugs prescribed, there was a 99.9% certainty I’d lose the lot. I was also told it was likely to happen around two and half weeks after my first chemo session. Well I knew in my bones I’d hang on to every last strand, but on the off chance that my surgeon, my oncologist, my oncologist’s PA, my chemotherapy nurses and a good friend (whose hair had just grown back after treatment with identical drugs) were right, I should be prepared.

If I wanted to carry on as normally as possible, I’d need to look as normal as possible. I wasn’t prepared to try the bald look (blessed with Natalie Portman’s features, I might have thought otherwise), and I’m not into scarves, so I’d need a wig. My hairdresser, Antoinette Beenders, recommended I make an appointment at wig and hairpiece specialist, TrendCo, in Notting Hill and even picked out some styles she thought would suit me. One of my sisters came with me, not just for moral support, but also to prevent me coming out looking like Hayley Cropper from Coronation Street, or even Dolly Parton. Don’t get me wrong, their wigs suit their personalities but they do look like wigs.

Once inside this emporium, I took my time and listened to the invaluable advice of the assistant. I kept narrowing the choices down and eventually went for a shortish, chunky cut with plenty of highlights and height. She was called Roni. The assistant trimmed the wig while I was wearing it and, I have to admit, even without makeup and wearing my worst comfy gear, I looked pretty good.

So I was organised when, exactly 19 days after my first chemotherapy session, the “will it/won’t it?” suspense was over. I was at a meeting with a client, a rather long one as it turned out, and every time I moved my head, I became aware that some of my hair was slowly floating down onto my shoulders. When I say “some” that really doesn’t describe the disconcertingly large amounts that were beginning to fall out. But I didn’t panic, and I didn’t want to put my client in an awkward position (we had only just won the business). By keeping my head very, very still I managed to arrest the fallout temporarily and, at the end of the meeting, walked very carefully back to the car. The area behind the driver’s seat resembled the floor of a hairdressing salon; my shoulders now had fur epaulettes. It had started. I was surprised that I didn’t feel more anxious than I did, but I had so much to do; I was taking the children to London for my sister’s 40th birthday party that evening.

When I got home I tied a very large scarf around my head, turban style. That scarf remained in place during the journey to London and throughout the night until I presented myself to a hairdresser the next morning and asked her to shave my head. Well, I was trying to ask her to shave my head, but I couldn’t get the words out, so I broke down instead. Up until this moment I had felt in complete control, now I knew I was definitely losing my hair I could feel the fear. The hairdresser was a wonderful, gentle Geordie, who had obviously dealt with many women like me. She told me that shaving my head would be too much of a shock for my children and me, and gave me an Annie Lennox instead. I’d had short hair in the past, but as short as this style was going to be, there would be no style at all within the next few weeks. I felt ugly, unfeminine but, most of all, very exposed.

At my sister’s I showered, put my face on, put my dress on then put Roni on. I preened a little and was very pleasantly surprised. I actually looked better wearing a wig than I did with my own hair, not just my face, the whole outfit. I took a deep breath before joining the party; I knew I would be the focus of a lot of attention as my family and friends were all aware of my cancer and treatment, but they didn’t know I would be wearing a wig. The compliments on how well I looked came thick and fast, and I graciously accepted them all. I experienced a real high later when I learned that not one guest realised my hair wasn’t my own. It was that good.

My new look received a similarly positive reception at work the following Monday, but when I got home that night, despite my short back and sides, the hair loss seemed never ending and I couldn’t stand it. With the help of my sister and my children, we all took turns to shave my head. If I felt unfeminine before, it just got a little worse, and I still had to face clients.

I would normally be in London for meetings a couple of times a week, but today was a little different; I was wearing Roni. I waited on the platform, every now and then catching the reflection of my perfect hair on the glass covered posters, and felt a little more confident. The PA system suddenly sprang to life and announced that a fast train was coming through and we should all stand back from the edge of the platform. The roar of the Norwich to London express was getting louder and louder, and before I could scream “toupée glue!” a violent and cruel wind began snatching at my head, doing everything it could to dislodge and then fling my pride and joy into the path of the train. I had to act fast. I snatched my mobile phone from my bag, clamped it to my ear, and held on to the hair closest to the phone with my thumb and forefinger, with my other hand, I pressed my fingers over the ear, ostensibly to hear better, but securing the other side of the wig at the same time. As the intercity train rocketed past in a noisy buffeting blur, I held on for dear life. It worked, but I knew my mobile phone was now a vital part of my outdoor uniform.

After 12 weeks my hair started growing again; but before I could feel any elation, my eyelashes and eyebrows did a disappearing act. When you’re 48 years old this is not a good look, believe me. But getting ready for work was a breeze: I no longer had to mess around with my hair because it was always perfect; as there was nothing to put mascara on, I framed my eyes with kohl pencil so you really didn’t notice the absence of eyelashes; I also became expert at using eyeshadow to produce perfect eyebrows.

You know what they say: if you fail to plan, you plan to fail, and I think I coped very well with hair loss, because I made sure I had the wig. But how do you plan for the more embarrassing side effects of chemotherapy? What about the diarrhoea? Yes, the fact that you could get diarrhoea is well known too, but no one helps you prepare for it. For example, do you sit on the loo for days on end just to be safe, or can you go to work and carry on as normal, secure in the knowledge that your body will give you ample time to find a toilet?

I can now tell you from my own bitter and personal experience that you don’t need to sit on a loo for days on end, you’ll just wish you had. One day, on the way back to Liverpool Street Station after a meeting, the unthinkable happened. I could be polite and say, “I had an accident”, but that would only dull the sheer heart-stopping horror of my knicker-filling moment. There was no warning, no premonition, no chance to take any evasive action whatsoever. I really wanted to curl up and die, but I saw the sign for a public loo and headed there instead.

When I got home, a gut-wrenching, buttock-clenching 60-minutes of misery later, I confided in my sister who, practical as ever, put together my emergency shit kit: scented nappy sacks, night-time sanitary towels, wet wipes, tissues, spare pair of knickers, body spray and Imodium Instants. And from that moment on, I never, ever left home without it. Although I had many close shaves throughout my treatment, at least I was prepared, but I shouldn’t have been in that position in the first place, should I?

Another side effect came completely from left field. It wasn’t covered by any of the notes that accompanied the chemotherapy drugs, which at least hair loss and diarrhoea were. So you could have knocked me down with a feather when, after 15 weeks, my fingernails and toenails started flaking off. It was a nuisance, as I couldn’t even put a jumper on without one of the nails catching and causing me some toe-curling moments. Worse than that was the ugliness of it all. My fingers looked quite unsightly, so much so when we had presentations to make at work to clients, I would get one of my colleagues to press the buttons, show the boards and generally do everything to ensure I didn’t have my hands on display. As my feet weren’t on show, I only had the pressure of shoe leather on nail-less toes to contend with. Painful, but not unsightly.

It’s sometimes hard to put my finger on what exactly was the worst side effect of the treatment. Certainly the diarrhoea attacks came top of my list, whereas I always thought it would be hair loss, which actually came second. Add to that insomnia – a common affliction for cancer patients – the temporary loss of my taste buds and throat and mouth ulcers galore, I sometimes felt truly grotty. I would have looked it too if it weren’t for the miracle of makeup and that darned fine hair.

Even the eyebrows?

It was official; the malignant tumour in my right breast, together with 19 lymph nodes had been removed, so chemotherapy was next. As a sensible mother of three, working full time as managing director of a PR consultancy in Essex, there were some very practical questions that had to be answered: How many sessions will I have? How long does each one last? Can I carry on working? How will I feel? What are the side effects? What about my weight? Can I still drink wine? But the only question I truly wanted an answer to was: Will I lose my hair?

If the script had called for it, like Sigourney, I’d have shaved my head; if I’d been an ancient Egyptian, ditto; if I’d been Britney… well, maybe not Britney… for most of us keeping our hair on is a number one priority. When I realised there was a chance I might lose my crowning glory, I felt a tiny pin prick of panic. I love my hair, it frames my face, softens my features; I really couldn’t imagine being without it; I even began to sympathise with all those men I’d ever berated for their comb-overs, my dad included.

I’d been told that, with the chemotherapy drugs prescribed, there was a 99.9% certainty I’d lose the lot. I was also told it was likely to happen around two and half weeks after my first chemo session. Well I knew in my bones I’d hang on to every last strand, but on the off chance that my surgeon, my oncologist, my oncologist’s PA, my chemotherapy nurses and a good friend (whose hair had just grown back after treatment with identical drugs) were right, I should be prepared.

If I wanted to carry on as normally as possible, I’d need to look as normal as possible. I wasn’t prepared to try the bald look (blessed with Natalie Portman’s features, I might have thought otherwise), and I’m not into scarves, so I’d need a wig. My hairdresser, Antoinette Beenders, recommended I make an appointment at wig and hairpiece specialist, TrendCo, in Notting Hill and even picked out some styles she thought would suit me. One of my sisters came with me, not just for moral support, but also to prevent me coming out looking like Hayley Cropper from
Coronation Street, or even Dolly Parton. Don’t get me wrong, their wigs suit their personalities but they do look like wigs.

Once inside this emporium, I took my time and listened to the invaluable advice of the assistant. I kept narrowing the choices down and eventually went for a shortish, chunky cut with plenty of highlights and height. She was called Roni. The assistant trimmed the wig while I was wearing it and, I have to admit, even without makeup and wearing my worst comfy gear, I looked pretty good.

So I was organised when, exactly 19 days after my first chemotherapy session, the “will/won’t it?” suspense was over. I was at a meeting with a client, a rather long one as it turned out, and every time I moved my head, I became aware that some of my hair was slowly floating down onto my shoulders. When I say “some” that really doesn’t describe the disconcertingly large amounts that were beginning to fall out. But I didn’t panic, and I didn’t want to put my client in an awkward position (we had only just won the business). By keeping my head very, very still I managed to arrest the fallout temporarily and, at the end of the meeting, walked very carefully back to the car. The area behind the driver’s seat resembled the floor of a hairdressing salon; my shoulders now had fur epaulettes. It had started. I was surprised that I didn’t feel more anxious than I did, but I had so much to do; I was taking the children to London for my sister’s 40th birthday party that evening.

When I got home I tied a very large scarf around my head, turban style. That scarf remained in place during the journey to London and throughout the night until I presented myself to a hairdresser the next morning and asked her to shave my head. Well, I was trying to ask her to shave my head, but I couldn’t get the words out, so I broke down instead. Up until this moment I had felt in complete control, now I knew I was definitely losing my hair I could feel the fear. The hairdresser was a wonderful, gentle Geordie, who had obviously dealt with many women like me. She told me that shaving my head would be too much of a shock for my children and me, and gave me an Annie Lennox instead. I’d had short hair in the past, but as short as this style was going to be, there would be no style at all within the next few weeks. I felt ugly, unfeminine but, most of all, very exposed.

At my sister’s I showered, put my face on, put my dress on then put Roni on. I preened a little and was very pleasantly surprised. I actually looked better wearing a wig than I did with my own hair, not just my face, the whole outfit. I took a deep breath before joining the party; I knew I would be the focus of a lot of attention as my family and friends were all aware of my cancer and treatment, but they didn’t know I would be wearing a wig. The compliments on how well I looked came thick and fast, and I graciously accepted them all. I experienced a real high later when I learned that not one guest realised my hair wasn’t my own. It was that good.

My new look received a similarly positive reception at work the following Monday, but when I got home that night, despite my short back and sides, the hair loss seemed never ending and I couldn’t stand it. With the help of my sister and my children, we all took turns to shave my head. If I felt unfeminine before, it just got a little worse, and I still had to face clients.

I would normally be in London for meetings a couple of times a week, but today was a little different; I was wearing Roni. I waited on the platform, every now and then catching the reflection of my perfect hair on the glass covered posters, and felt a little more confident. The PA system suddenly sprang to life and announced that a fast train was coming through and we should all stand back from the edge of the platform. The roar of the Norwich to London express was getting louder and louder, and before I could scream “toupée glue!” a violent and cruel wind began snatching at my head, doing everything it could to dislodge and then fling my pride and joy into the path of the train. I had to act fast. I snatched my mobile phone from my bag, clamped it to my ear, and held on to the hair closest to the phone with my thumb and forefinger, with my other hand, I pressed my fingers over the ear, ostensibly to hear better, but securing the other side of the wig at the same time. As the intercity train rocketed past in a noisy buffeting blur, I held on for dear life. It worked, but I knew my mobile phone was now a vital part of my outdoor uniform.

After 12 weeks my hair started growing again; but before I could feel any elation, my eyelashes and eyebrows did a disappearing act. When you’re 48 years old this is not a good look, believe me. But getting ready for work was a breeze: I no longer had to mess around with my hair because it was always perfect; as there was nothing to put mascara on, I framed my eyes with kohl pencil so you really didn’t notice the absence of eyelashes; I also became expert at using eyeshadow to produce perfect eyebrows.

You know what they say: if you fail to plan, you plan to fail, and I think I coped very well with hair loss, because I made sure I had the wig. But how do you plan for the more embarrassing side effects of chemotherapy? What about the diarrhoea? Yes, the fact that you could get diarrhoea is well known too, but no one helps you prepare for it. For example, do you sit on the loo for days on end just to be safe, or can you go to work and carry on as normal, secure in the knowledge that your body will give you ample time to find a toilet?

I can now tell you from my own bitter and personal experience that you don’t need to sit on a loo for days on end, you’ll just wish you had. One day, on the way back to Liverpool Street Station after a meeting, the unthinkable happened. I could be polite and say, “I had an accident”, but that would only dull the sheer heart-stopping horror of my knicker-filling moment. There was no warning, no premonition, no chance to take any evasive action whatsoever. I really wanted to curl up and die, but I saw the sign for a public loo and headed there instead.

When I got home, a gut-wrenching, buttock-clenching 60-minutes of misery later, I confided in my sister who, practical as ever, put together my emergency shit kit: scented nappy sacks, night-time sanitary towels, wet wipes, tissues, spare pair of knickers, body spray and Imodium Instants. And from that moment on, I never, ever left home without it. Although I had many close shaves throughout my treatment, at least I was prepared, but I shouldn’t have been in that position in the first place, should I?

Another side effect came completely from left field. It wasn’t covered by any of the notes that accompanied the chemotherapy drugs, which at least hair loss and diarrhoea were. So you could have knocked me down with a feather when, after 15 weeks, my fingernails and toenails started flaking off. It was a nuisance, as I couldn’t even put a jumper on without one of the nails catching and causing me some toe-curling moments. Worse than that was the ugliness of it all. My fingers looked quite unsightly, so much so when we had presentations to make at work to clients, I would get one of my colleagues to press the buttons, show the boards and generally do everything to ensure I didn’t have my hands on display. As my feet weren’t on show, I only had the pressure of shoe leather on nail-less toes to contend with. Painful, but not unsightly.

It’s sometimes hard to put my finger on what exactly was the worst side effect of the treatment. Certainly the diarrhoea attacks came top of my list, whereas I always thought it would be hair loss, which actually came second. Add to that insomnia – a common affliction for cancer patients – the temporary loss of my taste buds and throat and mouth ulcers galore, I sometimes felt truly grotty. I would have looked it too if it weren’t for the miracle of makeup and that darned fine hair.

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