The sentence “You have cancer” is usually closely followed by “You’re going to lose your hair.” That’s the way it was for me when I was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer in early October 2018. I chose to go bald, but the decision of how to handle hair loss from chemo is very personal, and how I went about it was just one of many options.
Women may also choose to wear hats, turbans, headscarves, or wigs, which could be realistic looking or fun and whimsical. There’s even a lesser-known option — cold cap therapy, also referred to as cold capping or scalp cooling — that can minimize hair loss from chemo.
Here’s how three women with a variety of diagnoses chose to handle the prospect of losing their hair to chemo.
Ashadee Miller, 38
Profession Fitness instructor and writer
Diagnosis Breast cancer, diagnosed at 34
Method for Dealing With Hair Loss Going bald
I started with wigs. For me, it was a confidence issue. My hair has always been such a huge part of my identity. I’m mixed race, and [my hair] had always been long and easy to do. I honestly thought for a long time that my hair was me. It scared me to think that by losing my hair, I would be losing a part of myself. At first, wigs seemed like the perfect choice because I would still be able to wear that confidence on my head and people would still see me as I had always been.
But after trying them out during chemo and being in temporary menopause because of my chemotherapy treatments, I opted not to wear them anymore. The wigs were very itchy and kept my head very warm when I would experience hot flashes. One day I had to ask myself, "Am I my hair?" My answer was no. I am so much more than my hair. That day was transformative for me and allowed me to more freely rock my bald head with confidence.
Pros I loved many parts of being bald: the convenience, the money and time it saved, and the times when I was able to connect with other cancer fighters and survivors spontaneously in grocery stores or at the movies. Now when I see a woman with a bald head, I always wonder if she is a fellow cancer warrior like me.
Cons It was very cold in the wintertime.
Biggest Lesson My hair is not me; I am more than that. Society tells women that beauty is long hair, long lashes, perfect eyebrows, gorgeous skin and nails, and toned bodies. During my chemo treatments I had no hair, eyelashes, or eyebrows. I had horribly chapped and dry, cracked skin. I also gained 15 pounds from my treatments and became bloated from the vast amounts of steroids they pumped into my body during treatment. Learning to see my whole self and truly see me for me was huge. I may not be society’s version of beautiful, but I am still beautiful, then and now.
Advice for Other Women Experiencing Hair Loss This journey of hair loss is hard. You may not recognize yourself, but know that you are beautiful no matter what. Rock out your wig if it makes your confidence grow, or wear your bald head proudly! Reach out to friends and know that you don’t have to walk this alone. You are not your hair. Your beauty goes so much deeper.
Follow Ashadee Miller on Instagram at @dearcancer_itsme.
Adina Schecter, 42
Greater Boston Area, Massachusetts
Profession Instructional coach for middle and high school teachers
Diagnosis Breast cancer, diagnosed at 33; has a BRCA1 mutation, a genetic change that greatly increases a woman’s risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer
Method for Dealing With Hair Loss Wearing headscarves
Another young woman at my treatment center said that she did not want to wear a wig because she wanted the world to know that women her age were getting cancer. This influenced my decision. Also, my friends and family started buying me these beautiful scarves right away, and I just got into wearing them; it reminded me of all the love I was getting from my community. My brother Ariel made one for me. I wore a scarf my deceased grandmother used to wear. These scarves reminded me that I was so loved and taken care of. It was symbolic for me, being wrapped in love by my friends and family.
I was diagnosed when I had a 5-month-old baby and a 2-year-old. I knew the baby was not going to notice a change in my hair, but the 2-year-old did, and I worried that being bald might scare her. My husband and I talked to her about how being bald is beautiful. We read this great children’s book that I would highly recommend to other mothers called Nowhere Hair by Sue Glader.
One day I took off my scarf because I was hot, and my daughter said, “Mommy, you look pretty.” I knew she was trying to make me feel better, and it was one of the sweetest moments. Also, my daughter started wearing the scarves, too, so it ended up being a playful, fun experience for both of us.
Pros Since people could tell I had cancer, every time I went out into the world people would treat me with extra love and kindness. I just embraced this. I felt like I was being my true self by not hiding my cancer but rather showing the world that I could be beautiful and strong in the face of illness.
Cons My head did sometimes get too hot. Some of the scarves were a little harder to tie than others. Some days I felt too tired to tie them, and they seemed more like a nuisance.
Biggest Lesson There is something terrifying about looking in the mirror and seeing a different person from the one you saw two weeks ago, but there is also something liberating. Besides not having to worry about hair removal or shampoo (which was quite a luxury for an Ashkenazi Jew), I just appreciated what I did have so much more. Losing my hair and finding a way to handle that big change was symbolic of my cancer experience overall. When [I was] diagnosed with cancer, there was so much I lost control over (like my life!), but I felt in control of how I lived during cancer.
Advice for Other Women Experiencing Hair Loss Get a fun pixie cut early on and just shave it off before it starts falling out in clumps. I was glad I did that because I think it might have been more upsetting to watch large clumps fall out.
Follow Adina Schecter on Instagram at @alschecter.
Heather Hall, 46
Sterling Heights, Michigan
Profession Vice president, corporate communications for a physician organization
Diagnoses Osteosarcoma, diagnosed at 21; melanoma, diagnosed at 27; and breast cancer, diagnosed at 43
Method for Dealing With Hair Loss Using cold caps
I was bald for almost 15 months during bone cancer [osteosarcoma] treatment when I was 21. While I learned to embrace it because I didn’t have a choice, it also made me sad and frustrated. It was stunning to be diagnosed with a third, separate cancer [when I was diagnosed with breast cancer at 43]. My whole world was upended more than I expected it to be with breast cancer. I wanted to take back my life as I cleared this cancer. I didn’t have a choice on hair loss during bone cancer, but I did during breast cancer. I chose to embrace that choice.
I used manual caps so I can only speak to that process. (The other option is a scalp-cooling system that has the cap attached to a small refrigeration machine that circulates coolants. These machines are purchased by an infusion center.) Gel-filled caps at my clinic are stored in a freezer at -39 degrees F. When it’s time to wear the cap, you massage the gel as much as you can so the cap fits to your head. The cold should distribute evenly on the scalp. The cap should be strapped as tight as is bearable to ensure that the cold reaches all areas of the scalp.
It’s important to note that cold cap therapy is not appropriate for all cancers. Different chemo drugs can also affect the success rate. The cold cap companies can assist with details.
Pros I could go to work, out with friends, shopping — basically live a seemingly normal life without having to share or explain about cancer treatment. I’ve always been very open about my cancer journey to help others, but there are times when I prefer it not to be at the forefront of my brain, and cold capping helped with that.
Cons The first cap is cold! I recall feeling a little light-headed with the very first cap for the first 10 minutes but refused to tell anyone because I was determined to use these caps! My scalp eventually got used to the cold, and thankfully I handled the coldness well. Each [cold cap] company has a specific protocol for hair care between treatments. For mine, I waited three days to wash my hair after treatment, then washed it every two to three days. I could wet my head on nonwash days if needed. There is a lot of maintenance between infusions: minimal touching or brushing, no heat (I could use low-cold dry), and no ponytails, braids, hats, or anything that will put stress on your scalp and hair follicles.
Biggest Lesson Every cancer moment has taught me to appreciate simple things. Washing my hair with warm water, brushing my hair, wearing ponytails, playing with my hair, getting scalp massages, wearing hats — none of this was allowed during cold capping, since you don’t want to add tension or trauma to your hair follicles. I don’t take these simple actions for granted anymore!
Advice for Other Women Experiencing Hair Loss Cold capping is definitely not for everyone. It takes work and commitment. There’s no guarantee it will work, nor how much [hair] you may or may not lose. But it gives you another option, which I’m grateful for. I had a friend go through treatment shortly after me who chose not to cold cap and instead let her hair fall out. She made an informed decision that worked best for her! You do you.