Preparing for Hair Loss During Chemotherapy

WORRIED ABOUT HAIR LOSS AND CANCER TREATMENT? WANT TO HEAR IT FROM SOMEONE WHO’S BEEN THERE?

I spoke heart-to-heart with Jan Ping, Emmy-winning TV cosmetologist, hairstylist and cancer survivor, on how to cope with the physical assault of chemotherapy on one’s appearance and self-image.

NM: What did you think when you found out you had cancer?

JP: I was a 45-year-old single mom when I received the call from my doctor that I had breast cancer. And right then I asked him if I would live or die. I waited for what seemed like an eternity for him to answer that he thought I would live. Then I was terrified of what chemo would feel like and look like on me — and especially about losing my hair! As a woman facing chemotherapy, you have no concept of what it will be like until you go through it. I’ve found that you can either get very frightened, get down to the business of doing it matter-of-factly or somehow find a way to react positively to the challenge. But it’s an evolution. It takes a couple of years to get back to the new you on the other side of cancer treatment as a survivor.

NM: What’s the best way to prepare for side effects like hair loss that might affect appearance?

JP: The first thing you have to do is talk to your doctor about your treatment plan and what to expect when it comes to the side effects. Each person’s “cocktail” produces different side effects that, in turn, might affect each person differently. Some chemo drugs cause hair fall-out, while some don’t; other cancer treatments can cause rashes, puffiness, mouth sores, burns and weight fluctuations. The effect that cancer treatment has on your physical appearance changes who you are. It affects your self-image for the rest of your life.

Jan_Ping_HeadshotNM: How can a woman having to endure chemo possibly prepare for total hair loss?

JP: Think about whether or not you want to wear a wig, because the best time to choose and style a wig is before you lose any hair, so your hairstylist can create the best match. I actually did prepare for a few wigs that I planned on wearing, but once I put one on and went back to work in it, I was uncomfortable physically and emotionally. I didn’t know that would happen, but once it did, I opted to just be bald because I didn’t like the feeling of the wig and I didn’t feel better in it. Some people love it and some don’t. I also think going to a professional experienced in hair loss and hair replacement is important because they can help you and guide you through all the stages of hair loss. Trusting someone else can be a relief when you’re not feeling well.

NM: I’ve heard that the actual hair fall-out is scary and uncomfortable. How can you cope with it?

JP: Generally, chemo-related hair loss happens by around the third week of treatment, and the hair often falls out in chunks. It is scary to find large patches of long hair on the pillow in the morning. As a hairstylist and a woman who’s been there, I definitely advise that you go for a few trims every few weeks and gradually cut your hair to the shortest length you can handle. This way you can see the shape of your scalp and get used to how you will look, which makes the final hair loss shock a little easier. Also, your scalp is extremely sensitive during the fall-out stage. But, when your hair loss is finally uneven and fuzzy (I actually looked like a little old man!), it’s time for the final shave. Visit a skilled, experienced, professional hairstylist to shave your hair using the shave guard — so it’s not shaved too short, which can be very uncomfortable — until it is completely bald and smooth. Avoid scissors, sharp instruments, cuts, nicks and mani’s and pedi’s, too, because your immune system is compromised by the chemo and you will be prone to infections.

NM: What happens to facial appearance and skin?

JP: You will most likely be feeling sick and/or very tired, and so you may have dark circles under your eyes and typically a sallow, paler skin tone. But the biggest problem I’ve noticed is the dryness. Skin is fragile, flaky, sensitive and so dry, so moisturize with highly emollient creams, balms or oils several times a day on face, lips and hands … even nail beds and cuticles. During this time you need to pamper yourself and be loving and careful with your body.

NM: What about makeup?

JP: I actually advise you to get all new makeup during this time because you’ll want to avoid contact with any bacteria lurking in your prior makeup products. And you will also need to have a new shade of foundation and concealer matched to your current skin tone. My number-one makeup tip: Stay away from superdark lipstick colors, which only highlight any paleness.

NM: What is “chemo curl”?

JP: Funny you should ask, because this is something that may happen when your hair begins to grow back in a different color or texture once chemotherapy is finished. I actually looked like Napoleon Dynamite because my hair grew in tightly curled and reddish! You can trim it off as it grows if you don’t like it, but don’t worry, because doctors say the hair follicles will normalize and grow regularly again. And I’m living proof.

NM: What else made you feel better?

JP: Try to stay strong and don’t give up. It can be empowering when you realize that what you think defines you as a woman is gone: your hair, your beauty … even your breasts. I always remember that I would never be who I am today if it had not been for the cancer. I am a much stronger, more resilient person than I was before. I decided I was going to do something with it, and that’s how I coped. So I share my story as much as possible to help others. One place where I really connect with other women just like me is through the American Cancer Society’s Look Good … Feel Better program. I volunteer as the makeup artist and hairstylist to help women learn makeup tips, get wig and hair loss help and just talk and be together. Women definitely leave feeling better (and with a free makeup kit).

Another time, when I was just walking down the street, what one woman did for me really changed my cancer experience and how I treat others. Remember, I didn’t wear a wig, so this woman came up to me and said, “Are you going through cancer treatment? Can I give you a hug? I’ve been there too.” That touched me so deeply that I do that whenever I can.