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How I'm recovering from cancer – but my hair, not so much Add to ...

The Essay is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

I don’t want anyone to think that my journey over the last year with breast cancer was not a serious, gut-wrenching ordeal for me and my family.

But when I look back on the time since fall, 2011, when I heard those horrible words confirming the diagnosis, I seem to have spent an inordinate amount of time and energy worrying about my hair – or lack thereof.

A month after the diagnosis, I had my first of six chemotherapy sessions. I had read the helpful yet terrifying literature given to me at the hospital, which explained that all my hair was going to fall out.

The consensus seemed to be that since it was a fact I would be bald within weeks, I should consider getting my head shaved before that happened.

The thought of masses of hair falling out on my pillow overnight, or in the shower in the morning, didn’t appeal to me at all.

The hospital has a small shop that specializes in hair removal and wigs. I made an appointment, and the saga of my hair began.

The kind hairdresser suggested I turn my chair away from the mirror as she did her work. But I didn’t, preferring to watch. My hair was never my best feature. It’s had numerous colours and styles over the years, none of them outstanding.

I think the salon staff were startled when I ran out to show my husband my bald head, honestly thinking it didn’t look bad at all.

The next step was to purchase a wig. I immediately spotted one – beautiful, highlighted hair styled in a way I’d only dreamed my hair could ever look. It was expensive, but in retrospect worth every penny. In fact, it’s rather sad but I’ve never had as many compliments on my hair as I did when I was wearing that wig.

At night, I would remove it and decide which of my many little crocheted hats I would wear to bed. Volunteer knitters make an assortment of brightly coloured caps that are provided free.

The months wore on, the chemo treatments finally finished, and when my 25 daily radiation sessions were over, wisps of hair began to reappear on my head. Not surprisingly, they were all grey.

I had never had grey hair. Any sign of that colour appearing at the roots of my hair had sent me rushing to the hairdresser. But now I could do nothing but watch myself turn grey almost instantly. There wasn’t enough hair to dye, and all the research I did said it was too soon after treatment to do that anyway.

I continued wearing my wig for the next few months and my hair continued to grow, as grey as a bleak, rainy day.

My ever-supportive family watched the process, and one day declared it was time that I put away my wig and face the world proudly with my own head of hair.

At that point my hair was lying flat, and my granddaughter informed me that people were spending money at hair salons to get just that look.

I thought it was a sweet remark, but didn’t believe her for a moment. I never saw any of those people. I must have confused my neighbours who weren’t aware of my condition as I walked the dog. One day I would be wigged, the next au naturel.

When my hair was about an inch long, an incredible thing happened: It became a mass of tight, out-of-control curls. Though my mother had always wanted a daughter with curly hair, and spent endless hours torturing me with pin curls that I had to sleep in, I had always been happy with straight hair.

I returned to the computer and Googled my latest conundrum. I discovered I had “chemo curls.” The only solution offered was to shave my head again and hope that my hair would return to its normal state.

I was not mentally prepared to do that, so other options had to be discovered.

I spent more time in the hair-product section of drugstores then I would care to admit. I brought home bottle after bottle of hair-straightening products. I applied gels, used a flatiron. All to no avail.

As for colour, although I am a proud grandmother of six, I didn’t want to look like a grey-haired granny. Nor did I want to spend money on professional hair colouring when I planned to have the curls cut off in a few months.

It seemed I would have to buy hats and scarves to cover up this hair I had thought I would be so happy to have.

But first I thought I’d try colouring it myself.

The package of store-bought dye said “dark brown.” Perhaps it was the chemicals still circulating in my system, or maybe it was my rookie hairdressing skills, but dark brown was actually black.

So back I went to the drug store and brought home a highlighting solution. After teasing hairs through holes in a tight-fitting cap with a crochet hook and applying the dye, I rinsed, shampooed and gingerly approached the mirror.

Not perfect, but it’s better than it was. And until my hair reaches a reasonable length, it’s the end of my attempts at hairdressing. Much more important to focus on the wonderful care and concern of the medical staff and my family and friends, who have brought me safely past the one-year mark in my recovery from cancer.

Susan Pratt lives in Toronto.

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