Jo Beagley was diagnosed with stage 3C ovarian cancer in 2014. Here she describes how losing her hair as a result of chemotherapy took her on an emotional journey.
"With the diagnosis of Stage 3C ovarian cancer came the news of chemotherapy and the strong likelihood of hair loss. I knew I was lucky to be in a position where treatment was an option but hair loss still became an overriding preoccupation.
I’d never had short hair and – as someone whose hair had largely been unchanged for 15 plus years – I’d come to feel my hair was part of what defined me.
The cold cap didn’t sound particularly pleasant but I decided to give it a go. It wasn’t as bad as I’d feared and, as a nurse had said, “get through the initial 15 minutes and you’re OK”.
I ended up using the cold cap for the first two chemo cycles. It didn’t look great; a basin type helmet, secured with a neoprene overlay and chin strap attached to a refrigeration unit.
When the time came to remove the cold cap after the chemo had been administered, I was slightly aghast to find my hair was actually frozen to the helmet and I had to wait a few minutes for it to defrost.
In hindsight I wonder whether the cold cap would have been more effective if I had cut my hair shorter before my chemo.
Five weeks into my chemo I noticed more hairs were coming out than normal. I started going out in the garden to run my hands through my hair; somehow it wasn’t quite as stark as seeing the hair mount up on the carpet.
By my third cycle of chemo my hair had really thinned on the top. I had accepted the hair loss at that point – even if using the cold cap meant I didn’t lose any more I could hardly go round with a bald patch on the top.
I know many cancer patients elect not to wear a wig, but for me a bald head, with or without a headscarf, screamed ‘I’m having treatment for cancer’.
Seeing myself in a wig for the first time was slightly surreal but a relief. It didn’t look as horrendous as I feared. My boys (aged 4 and 6 years at the time) were apprehensive initially but my youngest was soon converted having been allowed to brush it and try it on for himself.
Once I’d shaved my own hair the boys weren’t keen on seeing me without my wig. “Mummy you look like an alien,” my youngest exclaimed, I tried to limit the extent to which they would see me without it but it wasn’t always practical to put it on when responding to a shout for mummy in the middle of the night.
On reflection I put off shaving my remaining hair for too long, but I knew I needed to wait until I could emotionally face it and for me that was the point at which shaving was the best option. After a couple of glasses of wine I let my sister-in-law do the deed.
Looking at myself in the mirror for the first time was upsetting but came as a relief. I felt a mess with straggly hair and it wasn’t easy concealing what hair I retained under my wig.
The first time I encountered people in my wig I felt the need to acknowledge it and make some comment about it.
My youngest son soon picked up on the fact I was self-conscious about the wig. He had a phase of threatening to tell his friends or pull it off when having a moment. We had regular chats about it but he knew it was a weak spot he could target when angry.
I felt lucky to hang onto my eyebrows and eyelashes until nearing the end of my chemo; I was only without them for about six weeks. After getting used to losing my hair I thought losing my eyebrows/lashes would be small fry – but I hadn’t appreciated how the lack of them would completely change my appearance. I was shown how to draw on my eyebrows but I decided they looked exactly that – drawn on.
About six weeks after my last chemo my hair started growing back. My boys had mixed feelings. They wanted to see it back to how it was and commented how I resembled a boy.
Small milestones became important like using a shampoo again, having eyelashes long enough to wear mascara and going for a hair cut.
As much as I loathed the wig at the outset, after seven months of wearing it I was reticent to be without it. I was lucky to benefit from the advice of a hairdresser who specialises in working with clients who are undergoing/ have undergone chemo. Her advice on how to care for my hair to strengthen it and promote regrowth was invaluable.
I was slightly taken aback when she suggested it needed a cut when it was so short, but it looked much better. It gave me so much more confidence that I braved the walk back to the car without the wig.
I didn’t feel ready to ditch the wig completely, largely due to what the boys would think and how their friends would react. I knew that once I stopped wearing it I was letting go of my old identity – the same hairstyle I’d had for the last 17 years.
In time I became more relaxed about letting people see me without the wig in the gym and I kept challenging myself to go places not wearing it.
I eventually plucked up the courage to ditch the wig and for a while I was nervous about whether people would recognise me.
I had a few comments about the extreme haircut from people who weren’t aware that I’d been having chemo, but on the whole it felt liberating.
Allowing myself to be photographed felt like a big deal, as did posting a photo on social media of my ‘new look’, but once I’d done it I felt a sense of relief.
People commented on how much more relaxed I looked. Going wig-free was considerably more comfortable, but I also think I hid behind the wig to a degree, keeping a low profile so as to avoid confronting the whole history of the diagnosis and treatment with people who weren’t already aware.
Two years on from when I started losing my hair I've kept it short. It’s easier to manage than long hair and I have a warped view that if I had to have chemotherapy in the future the prospect of losing short hair might be somewhat easier... I doubt it though."
“It feels like life is almost back to normal – or at least a new normal” – Click here to read Jo's ovarian cancer journey, from processing the diagnosis to facing the future.