(October is observed as the breast cancer awareness month. FIT will be bringing you a story every day - from stories of survivors, to latest in medical technology, to treatment options, to food and alternative medicine.)
“A woman’s hair is her pride and glory”. Nowhere is this truer than in India, where long hair is pretty much the gold standard. The idealized Indian beauty in art, popular culture and Bollywood, is inevitably a woman with waist length, straight black hair. As a child, I would have traded an arm and a leg for hair like that.
Growing up my hair was a constant source of irritation and mortification. My Punjabi-Mangalorean ancestry resulted in a mop of hair that at the best of times could be described as curly and at the worst of times - frizzy, wayward and downright rebellious!
For years my mother made valiant efforts at taming it through a series of questionable haircuts.
These included and I’m not kidding: oiled braids with a middle parting, a mushroom cut, bangs and at a particularly critical point in my adolescence, a mullet…I have the photographs to prove it.
As a teenager, I envied classmates and friends who had poker straight hair, the kind that stayed effortlessly in place. Determined to copy them, I invested a small fortune in hair straighteners, serums and all manner of potions…all in vain. My hair remained as curly and defiant as ever.
Miraculously, as beach waves and curls made a comeback, my hair was suddenly on trend. To borrow a phrase from Sheryl Sandburg, I really began to “ lean in” and enjoy being a curly girl. But you know what they say about Murphy’s Law?
Cancer Comes Calling
Ten days after I spent a small fortune coloring my hair, I got the jaw dropping news that I had stage 2 breast cancer. As the news sunk in, one of the first things I remember asking was whether I would lose my hair. The short answer was yes.
Following surgery to remove the tumor, my treatment involved an aggressive regime of chemotherapy and radiation.
Chemotherapy prevents fast replicating cells such as cancerous tumor cells from multiplying. An unfortunate and often devastating side effect of chemo, particularly for women, is hair loss.
The prospect of losing my hair was almost as daunting as coming to terms with the disease. I wondered how I would cope with being bald. What would it feel like? What would people think? How would I explain my baldness to my 4 year old? I googled relentlessly looking up websites, forums and YouTube videos about cancer related hair loss. Yet, despite all my reading nothing prepared me for it.
A few weeks after starting chemo, my hair started to fall. It was slow at first, a few strands on my pillow and on the bathroom floor. Within days, I had hair coming away from my head in chunks.
The process was physically and emotionally painful. I had many people tell me the hair loss was temporary, that being bald was cool and that my hair would grow back. But, these words brought cold comfort.
Losing my hair was like carrying around a big sign saying I had cancer.
It Was Time to Snip It
What had been a closely guarded secret was now very public and there was nowhere to hide. Once the hair loss started there was no stopping it. One morning, I woke up and looked at my rapidly balding head and realized it was time to bite the bullet.
My incredibly brave husband volunteered to give me a buzz cut. Shaving my head was a transformational moment. Within minutes what had been a slow agonizing experience was suddenly over. I was back in the driver’s seat, back in control.
Over the next few months, as treatment continued, I experimented with different looks.
I recall a particularly fun morning picking out a wig. My sister and I could barely contain our giggles as a rather avuncular wigmaker modeled different styles for us. I chose a wig with the hair I had always wanted – jet-black and poker straight.
While I looked nothing like myself, the wig allowed moments of normalcy. When you’re a cancer patient undergoing months of grueling treatment, those moments are important. The wig gave me the freedom to pick up my son up from school, go out to dinner, watch movies, and shop for groceries without the scrutiny of prying and curious eyes.
As the months passed, I watched YouTube tutorials on how to tie chemo scarves and turbans using dupattas, scarves and stoles.
Weekly chemo sessions became opportunities to try out a new style. As summer turned to winter, I swapped scarves for caps and hats to keep my head warm. In time, I learned to draw on eyelashes and eyebrows using stencils and makeup. Looking good went a long way in feeling well even on the worst of days.
Just Own The Look
My bald head received many compliments and I was often told to ditch the wig and scarves and “just own the look”. That’s easier said than done when you live in a society where long hair is the norm, staring the national pastime, and bald women most commonly associated with widowhood, sacrifice or penance.
Think I’m exaggerating, think again. From neighborhood aunties to my local kirana store, I had many people ask if I had made a trip to Tirupati or had shaved my head to realize a “mannat”. Why else would I shave my head?
For many women cutting their hair short or shaving their heads is a choice. But for many women like me, it isn’t.
Cancer treatment is just one condition that can cause hair loss. I was fortunate to have family and friends who were supportive of how I dealt with the situation. This isn’t the case for everyone.
I’ve heard stories from women undergoing cancer treatment about the social and family pressure they faced when it came to shaving their heads. Some were not allowed to for fear of what people would think.
Denying women agency in how they deal with cancer related hair loss even as they cope with the barrage of treatment related side effects can have damaging consequences.
As a breast cancer survivor, I can tell you that women undergoing treatment deal with a tumult of feelings that include feelings of loss – for parts of their body, for their health, for the lives they knew and for their looks.
Imagine waking up every day and not having a single strand of hair on your head, face or body. Imagine not wanting to look at yourself in the mirror and wondering if you will ever feel beautiful again.
Women undergoing treatment need a lot of psycho-social support to deal with the many physical and emotional changes they experience. This support comes not just from doctors and medical practitioners but also from families, husbands, partners, children and friends.
Helping women cope with cancer related hair loss and counseling them on the options out there is critical to building their self-confidence and morale even as they battle the disease.
It Can Be Liberating
As I look back over the past year, without a doubt losing my hair was incredibly hard. There were many days when I hated my reflection in the mirror. But going bald was also an incredibly liberating experience. Waking up bald everyday made me realize the inordinate amount time, energy and effort; I used to spend agonizing over my hair.
It made me realize that beauty is so much more than a full head of hair and that bald is brave and beautiful.
As for my hair? Within a few weeks of completing treatment, it began to grow back. Slowly at first, with nothing more than a few strands of fuzz. Within a month, I had a half-inch of hair and within three months, I did a fair impression of Demi Moore in G.I Jane.
Nearly 6 months later, I have a mop of short hair that is as curly, defiant and rebellious as it ever was. I couldn’t be happier. And even as my days of chemo scarves and wigs are behind me (hopefully for good), I remember vividly what the wigmaker told me - “Be happy you’re losing your hair, it means the medicine is working.”
If you or anyone you know is experiencing cancer related hair loss, there are many options to help cope with the situation.
Some resources are listed below as reference:
Wigmakers in Delhi NCR
Marchers International Private Ltd.
48, SAB Mall, 2nd Floor, Sector-27, Noida
Tel: 0120-4232000, 4232090 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com Website: www.marchers.in
(Mandakini Surie lives and works in New Delhi. She is a keen observer and writer of social development issues in India. Mandakini completed treatment for breast cancer in January 2018. She hopes to raise awareness of the disease through her writing. In her spare time, she loves to cook, dance and travel in no particular order. She tweets @mdevasher. The views expressed are personal and should not be taken as medical advice or opinion.)
(Have you subscribed to FIT’s newsletter yet? Click here and get health updates directly in your inbox.)