Going going grey (strangely, having chemo helped!)

Breast Cancer Awareness Month is one of the best ways of keeping all of us alert. We need to be vigilant, we want an early diagnosis, we want to be prepared. But, what if you’re already there? Had the cancer diagnosis and are now going through chemo and losing your hair? A few years ago, that was me and my biggest fear was facing the world with grey hair. If you’re facing a similar choice, please read this.

I’d been dyeing and highlighting my hair for decades. In fact for many of those years, I didn’t know what my true hair colour was but, in my forties, I could tell from my roots that I was going grey. Somehow that was far worse than having roots of any other colour; grey was synonymous with old; grey was about retirement and crossword puzzles; grey had nothing to do with the vibrant, energetic, forever-young and highlighted me. I knew that one day I’d have to face grey hair; I wanted to control how I did this, rather than be in a situation where it was forced on me and, even though I knew I had plenty of time before this would ever be an issue, I was dreading it. Getting breast cancer and having chemotherapy meant my ‘opportunity’ to embrace the grey came a lot earlier than I’d planned. I lost my hair and, when it started to grow again, steel grey in places, white in others, I dyed it immediately, I didn’t even stop to think about it. Five years after my first cancer diagnosis, I was diagnosed again. Same treatment, same outcome, same steel grey and white hair, but this time I decided to do nothing about it. As much as I thought I wanted the security of medium-golden-brown-with-caramel-highlights, I felt the time was right to stay grey. My hair was terrifyingly short and I felt incredibly exposed, but I really liked the grey and white. Loved it in fact. After decades of practising with various shades of browns, coppers and reds, I realised that grey really suited me. The paleness seemed to lift my complexion and give me a freshness that I thought made me look, if not younger, certainly softer. For me grey was the new blond and, as odd as it sounds, I felt a little glamorous, which does you the world of good when you’ve just finished chemo and radiotherapy. So when friends and colleagues saw me for the first time without my wig or turban, I accepted their double takes and kerb-falling reactions as a wholly natural response to my new look. I was flattered. And when they said that they loved my hairstyle, especially the colour, I believed them; why wouldn’t I?

Then my kids, who were teenagers at the time, admitted that they didn’t like me grey; they preferred the colour my hair used to be, and perhaps I’d think about growing it a little longer too. Were they concerned that their friends might think I looked like a granny? Yes. Did they think I looked a lot older? Yes to that too. Shortly after their revelation my sister took me to one side and, very tenderly, told me that someone at the school fete thought I was her mother and my children’s grandmother. Confirmation from grown-ups, finally, that grey is evil and it hurt. This knowledge could have made me fall off the wagon completely and reach for the bottle of hair dye, but I held my nerve until I could get a more objective view, or one I agreed with at any rate. I confided in a friend who, unexpectedly and rather sadly, agreed with my children and my sister. Being grey was just plain ageing – I was beginning to think I was committing social suicide. To top it all I saw a picture of Jane Fonda, who was in her 70s and looking fabulous, with the hairstyle and colour I used to have. To say I was depressed would be an understatement. My confidence knocked, I questioned whether I was doing the right thing after all. I started studying grey-haired women in their 70s and 80s and wondered if that’s how I looked; I would catch the reflection of older women in shop windows before realising with a start it was me. Without realising it, I stopped doing Sudoku in public as that might mark me out as being older than my years; ditto wearing my worst comfy gear. Then I got angry. Angry that the colour of my hair should become such an issue. Angry that it could affect how I felt about myself and how I behaved, especially when I’d been so positive just weeks earlier. Angry that I was doing older people such a great disservice. All because of the colour of my hair. I’ve always been used to people enjoying my company and taking my advice because of what was going on inside my head, not on it. But grey was more than just a colour, it was a sort of litmus test that indicated I was, in some way, ‘past it’.

I run my own PR consultancy and am a consultant with a branding company, so I know how important image is and, as much as I want to say ‘I don’t care what people think of me’, I do care. I also understand the pressures some women are under to look younger and hang on to their jobs, their men even. If dyeing your hair is what it takes to preserve the status quo, that’s fine by me. I believe you should only go grey when, and if, you want to, and it’s a big step for most of us, it certainly was for me. But I don’t want to be judged by others’ frames of reference and I don’t want to be an ambassador for grey hair either, I want to be me. I know I can still go back if the lure of medium-golden-brown proves too strong to resist, but why would I? I’m comfortable with who I am.

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