Chemotherapy and hair loss: ‘Making it as positive an experience as you can makes it more bearable’

1st February, 2022 • 8 min read

Jo, 55, was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 49. Now 6 years in the clear, she decided to share her experience of hair loss due to chemotherapy treatment.

She talks openly about how she coped with and prepared for losing her hair, and also shares helpful tips for people who are going through the same thing.

When it actually happened, it felt much more of a thing

When it came to losing my hair, I thought I wouldn’t mind much. I’d always tried different styles, so hair was a thing to be played with! And in the greater scheme of things, I didn’t feel like it was that big a deal.

But when it actually happened, it felt much more of a thing. You can’t see cancer, but losing my hair was a very visual sign that I was ill. In a bizarre way, it was quite helpful, because otherwise it would have been very easy to pretend it wasn’t happening. My body was saying, “No, you have to face this – it’s real!”

Even though you know your hair will fall out, when it starts coming out in clumps, and a pattern of hair is left behind when you move from where you’re sitting or standing, it’s weird. It can even be quite disturbing.

When it first started falling out, it was OK, but then it got really thin. Maybe some part of me thought it would all fall out in one go, but the fact that it was gradual made it feel a bit more painful.

I was definitely looking in the mirror a lot, thinking, “What does this mean about who I am? Do I look sick? Does it look OK?”

I was mindful of them and their feelings

At the time of my diagnosis, my 2 daughters were 9 and 12. I decided right from the start that I was going to be honest with them, so that nothing came as a shock or surprise.

I explained what I had and that it had been caught early, but I needed to have medication that would make me lose my hair. It was important to me to explain that it wasn't going to be permanent and the medicine was going to make me better, so it was all for a positive end.

I also decided that I couldn't take on everyone's emotions. As long as I felt OK with what I was doing and I could explain it to them, that’s all I could really do. I was mindful of them and their feelings, but at the same time I just had to be honest and say, “this is what's happening.”

I cut my hair short in preparation

My hair was shoulder-length when I was diagnosed, so I cut it short in preparation. I got a hairdresser to come to the house – someone we know. That felt important, because I wanted the girls to be involved.

My younger daughter was really into the idea and happy to help – she even did a bit of shaving. My older daughter was sitting in the corner, looking really unhappy and not wanting to participate, but also not wanting to not be in the room.

I knew that the hairdresser I’d chosen would make it a nice experience, and it didn’t feel medicalised at all. It was just like having your hair cut at home, rather than at a salon.

I suppose the fact of it not being a choice is never nice. But making it as positive an experience as you can makes it more bearable.

You’ll live with short hair for quite a long time

There were 2 separate elements to losing my hair – the care of it all, and then making me look acceptable to myself.

In terms of caring for my hair and scalp, organic coconut oil was absolutely amazing. It was really kind and gentle, and seemed to soothe and nourish my skin. But there are so many products on the market for scalp care and hair regrowth, so it was a case of trying lots of them.

It wasn't just fashionable headwear I needed – it had to be practical, too

I was diagnosed in September, so we were heading into winter. What I didn't know was that your head gets really cold when you’ve got no hair. Like, really cold!

I looked at wigs and there were all sorts of options, but I just felt they were the wrong choice for me. Then I started looking at hats, but soon realised that normal hats don't cover the nape of your neck. So as well as looking odd, the back of your neck is absolutely freezing! It wasn't just fashionable headwear I needed – it had to be practical, too.

I really loved the cotton hats sold on most cancer hat websites. They’re just like beanies, but they’re tight-fitting so they keep you warm and they’re longer at the back to cover your neck. They could be quite plain, so I’d put a furry ski-type headband on top to make them look a bit more glam.

Your scalp also gets really sensitive when you don’t have any hair – another reason I didn’t go for a wig. So in the end, with certain hats I didn’t really care how I looked, because they kept me warm and didn’t irritate my skin.

It wasn't just how I felt that I had to deal with, but other people too. I didn't want the 'sympathy' looks or endless cancer chats, so as much as possible I chose headwear that I might ordinarily have worn.

As much as I was trying to embrace it, it’s not like I wanted to go out and about looking like, “Look at me, I've got cancer.” So I was trying to find that balance.

It was amazing how much help there was

I knew the hair on my head was going to go, but I hadn't considered the fact that hair also disappears from everywhere else. When my eyelashes and eyebrows went, I thought, “OK, now I look like an alien!”

But places such as

Look Good Feel Better
can help. They provide huge amounts of products to try, give expert guidance on how to care for your hair and skin, and teach you things such as how to draw on your eyebrows in a way that looks natural.

At my hospital they also had all kinds of brochures and information about what’s possible and what’s around. Wig and hat people would visit, too, offering advice about what could be really helpful to you.

It was amazing how much help there was. Various charities, and lots of beauticians and hairdressers had signed up to local places to help people for free. They had specific knowledge about chemo hair in terms of styling and cutting it, and about scalp sensitivity and what products to use (and not use). I felt like I was in really safe hands. There are also places such as

Maggie’s
, which offer all sorts of alternative therapies.

I think the biggest thing with treatment is that you end up feeling like a bit of a shell. You’re just in survival mode and you’re being poked and prodded and jabbed, and you’re literally pumped full of poison. All this really heavy stuff was happening. But it was actually really nice to be kind to myself, and there were all these people being so caring and gentle.

I think I was kinder to myself and more thoughtful about my body’s needs than ever before during my treatment.

Find someone who’s been through it

On the emotional side, it’s almost like we’re in a little club, so I would find someone who’s been through it.

As with most things, talking to someone who hasn’t been through what you’re going through isn’t all that helpful. But when you talk to people who have, there’s a kind of brutal honesty. There’s a lot of, “Oh, well, no one’s going to tell you that X is going to happen.”

Places like Maggie’s have groups you can join to talk to others in the same position as you, so that might be a good place to start.

One big thing to remember is there’s no 1 size fits all and there’s a lot out there. You just have to look at it all and figure out what works for you.

Additional support

Having cancer is hard on the body, but can also have an impact on your mental health. If you’ve been affected by cancer it’s important to ask for help and support when you need it. Your GP or cancer nurse will be able to help, and you may want to consider having counselling if you’re experiencing any anxiety or depression.

Read more about

how to cope with hair loss caused by cancer treatment
.

Find useful information on other areas of female hair loss with our

complete Guide
.

Find recommended places to get wigs and head coverings at

Cancer Research UK
.

Get free advice and lessons about make-up from:

For free support and advice about any aspect of cancer, reach out to charities and organisations including:

Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.