Reading the blogs of the brilliant Mark Noblett, who is currently undergoing a stem cell transplant, has got me thinking back to my own time in hospital and has inspired me into writing a few blogs about the experience. I'd like to start by debunking a few myths about chemo and losing your hair - something which is regarded as part of the proceess for all cancer patients that undergo chemotherapy.
Myth One: All chemo patients lose their hair
This is a complete misconception. The reality is that amount of hair loss, if any, is completely different from patient to patient. Some do lose all their hair, and, in some cases, even their eyebrows. However others don't lose their hair at all with it thinning to various degrees. For many, it's somewhere in between.
It's also completely dependent upon dosage and the type of chemotherapy that a patient receives. For many CML patients, for example, they are on a pill form of chemotherapy that doesn't make their hair fall out at all.
Myth Two: You lose your hair all at once
Contrary to popular belief you don't wake up the morning after chemotherapy with all your hair having fallen out. What actually happens in most cases is that your hair begins to come out in clumps whilst you're sleeping and the nurses advise you to shave your head rather than wait for it to fall out gradually and having to remove chunks from your pillow every morning. That's what I did when I underwent my treatment and I got my sister to shave my hair for me:
Myth Three: Your hair will grow back differently
For some their hair does grow back a different colour. This happened to me with my hair returning a slightly darker, more mousy colour than before. However, this is by no means the case for all. What's also important to appreciate is that undergoing chemo will almost certainly not mean that you begin treatment a blonde and end it with jet black hair - unless of course you reach for the hair dye!
The other common side-effect of chemo is that people's hair grows back slightly differently in terms of its shape, texture and thickness. In my case my hair grew back slightly curlier and a little thicker although it also grew back slightly more bristley. Again, this is completely different from patient to patient with some not experiencing any change at all.
Why do people lose their hair undergoing chemo?
This is a question I've been asked a number of times and the answer is actually remarkably simple - the chemotherapy is unable to distinguish between the fast growing cancerous cells it has been sent to seek out and destroy and the equally fast growing hair cells. As a result your hair often perishes alongside the cancer cells. Patients can lose their cheek lining and ability to produce saliva whilst undergoing high dose chemotherapy for the same reason.
Researchers are working on improving upon and developing new treatments all the time but as yet have not been able to crack the nut when it comes to producing a chemotherapy that is able to distinguish definitively between cancer and hair cell.
Psychological impact of losing your hair
For me losing my hair wasn't a real issue on an aesthetic level and it turned out I actually have an alright shaped head. However I know for others that this is a much bigger ordeal, especially for women. The good news is that help and support is out there. Nurses on wards, for example, can arrange for a wig fitter to visit and help patients choose a style and colour that suits them best. None of this was offered to me (can't think why!) but it's great that good advice is available to patients. Macmillan's offering is a great starting point.
As for the deeper more psychological level, I don't think I stopped to think too much about any of that while I was going through treatment but I have reflected upon it more since going in to remission. The way I see it is that losing my hair was part of my blood cancer journey - a necessary step on my road to recovery - and I'm proud of my new hair, different as it now is.
Every year on the anniversary of my transplant - my second birthday - I shave my hair as a sign of respect to others going through treatment and as a reminder to myself of the journey that I've been through. Every time I shave it, both I and my hair grow back that little bit better off for it and this is how I would advise all patients to treat losing their hair. You will return stronger and wiser!
Read Andy's blog on his head shave for his 10 year transplant anniversary