Sooner or later when someone mentions Chemotherapy one question always comes up… Will I lose my hair?
Me and my hair are a bit like the Barry Manilow jingle – I am stuck on Band Aid ‘cos Band Aid’s stuck on me. And I wasn’t just stuck on my hair – I was literally terrified to lose it. Since childhood, my hair was usually the only thing I had going for me – however fat and spotty I got; however scruffy and dirty I was – I was the kid to whom mud pies were irresistible. My grandmother told me at an impressionable age, “Wash your hands and face, brush your hair and you’ll be fine.” I trusted that my hair and elementary grooming would take me anywhere.
A little bit later, when I went through what my mother called ‘the plain stage’, (and, for me, that went on for a very l-o-n-g time) she assured that, whatever else I didn’t have going for me, I had great hair. With both my grandmother and my mother telling me my hair made me OK, come what may it is no wonder that my emotional investment in my hair was huge. My own private contribution was that I was a bit ashamed of what I had under it. It seemed to me that the the back to my head was very flat. At the age of ten I had refused have my hair in bunches because I thought that, with this very abbreviated head, people would know at a glance I was stupid. Undiagnosed dyslexia, epilepsy and its treatment has a lot to answer for! So, facing chemo, my reaction was all about the hair.
The first lot of chemo began in March 1992 and hardly did anything to my hair. It hardly did anything to the cancer either. So my oncologist decided to do something called – in capital letters – CHOP! It seemed very violent and I was warned it would CHOP my hair too. It did. It was not a good time.
My hair started to come away in my hand. I’d run my hand through my hair and find I had a handful Every millimetre of my scalp had the headachy sensation that one gets when you change your parting. I was like a mangy dog – it fell out all over me and every time I woke up, even from a short nap, I had to hoover the pillow! I went to the hairdresser to get it cut short so its loss would be less obvious and less messy.
One day I thought, ‘To Hell with it! I’m going to be as bald as an egg. Let’s cut to the chase and just shave it off!’ So we used a beard trimmer and then shaved the stubble away with a razor. It might have been tragic but I love the energy of breaking taboos and, unexpectedly, it turned out to be funny and empowering.
Most people seem to try to replicate their own hair to look as normal as possible. Joan Collins was a neighbour of mine and, inspired by her and Dolly Parton, I chose instead to play it for laughs with as many different kinds of wigs as I could find. I shopped for wigs. I went to joke shops, party shops and wig shops and I also tried wig catalogues. In the end I had nine different wigs. One was long enough to sit on. I don’t know what happens when you grow your own long enough to sit on it but I can tell you that with a wig that long you find that it, if you sit on it, the wig begins to crawl off the back of your head. Six inches had to be trimmed off it to make it useable.
Soon after I got my first wig I went for a walk on a high hill in London. The wind was so strong I feared it would blow my wig clean off my head. I knew how silly people looked chasing after their hat and wished I had ribbons to tie under my chin because I was certain that an unfit bald lady awkwardly pursuing her wig would be just too hilarious. There is certain adjustment period to full time wiggery. I did find them itchy. The Newel post in our hall frequently looked like Traitors’ Gate because upon returning home I would pull off my wig and dump it on the knob.
My son was six, rising seven, and I presumed he would try to conceal his mother’s baldness from his friends. But, when I grabbed a lie down during a playdate, he and his friend would often burst into my bedroom and I would be revealed lying there looking like Humpty Dumpty. The boys’ frequently looked quite shocked. The girls were easy to distract; there wasn’t one who declined an offer to have a go at playing with my wigs (I collected nine of them!). I wondered what was going on in my son’s head but thought better of asking.
My face must be very common because almost all my life I have been told that I resembled other people… The first time, I was a rotund adolescent when a bitchy classmate looked at me and said, “You look just like Hattie Jacques.” who was legendary and large. At other times I was told I was like Prunella Scales, Hayley Mills, Juliet Mills, Elizabeth Taylor(!), Kathleen Turner, Myrna Loy. It wasn’t hard to take. As I lost my hair the people I resembled changed.
Irving Lazar was a real Hollywood mover and shaker. After putting together three major deals for Humphrey Bogart in one day, Bogart him dubbed “Swifty”, a nickname he disliked but it stuck. Swifty Lazar also represented Lauren Bacall, Truman Capote, Cher, Joan Collins, Noël Coward, Ira Gershwin, Cary Grant, Moss Hart, Ernest Hemingway, Gene Kelly, Madonna, Walter Matthau, Larry McMurtry, Vladimir Nabokov, Clifford Odets, Cole Porter, William Saroyan, Irwin Shaw, President Richard Nixon and Tennessee Williams. His power was such that he could negotiate a deal for someone who was not even his client and then collect a fee from that person’s agent.
One night I was sitting in bed with my huge square black-framed glasses on.The wardrobe door, which had a full-length mirror, was open and I caught sight of my reflection. Smooth pale head + big black-framed glasses who was that familiar face? Oh yes, Swifty Lazar, the legendary American talent agent and deal maker. Never thought I’d see him in my bedroom…! Help! That was me.
One night my husband and I were watching a boring movie in bed. I was musing over the way I could ring the changes with my various wiggy alter egos. “Is it exciting never knowing which woman you are going to be going out with?” I asked. His expression looked distinctly unexcited. The penny dropped.
“Oh.” I said into his silence, “ Yes. I suppose if you come home to go to bed with the same old bald one…”
We had a wonderful masseuse who would come to the house and give me a massage to iron out some of the kinks and tensions that knotted my body and I found her ministrations wonderfully therapeutic. An oiled bald head is a big plus for massage because, unimpeded by any considerations of hair pulling, hands slip easily over the scalp smoothing out tensions accurately and precisely.
Once, after the massage I put on a long, cowl-necked navy blue kaftan. She followed me down the stairs, “Kit,” she observed, “from this angle you look exactly like Uncle Fester.” It was funny and I laughed. What had happened to Elizabeth Taylor and Kathleen Turner?
I bought a tinsel wig and kept it for Christmas.
This and Gretchen (below) came from a party shop and cost less than a cup of coffee.
Gretchen – The long blonde plaits looked great with jeans made me feel like yodelling.
It is a fact that those whose hair is admired are seldom happy with it themselves. The hair I aspired to was long and straight and platinum blond. Guess which wig was first on my list.
I called that wig ‘Helga’ and, since I still encounter friends (usually men) who enquire wistfully after ‘Helga’, I think it is safe to assume, I am not alone in admiring the long blonde look.
The wonderful thing about being bald is that you can have whatever hair you like. I still have Helga because I cannot bear to get rid of her. Now that my own hair has grown back however, it is impossible for me to tie my own hair back severely enough for it not to show. Helga is something I could only experience and enjoy BECAUSE I was bald. The only way to discover these compensations and expand your horizon is to, as Charlie Chaplin suggested, ‘take your pain and play with it.’
This was the grown-up wig which I wore to be
I always wanted a ‘Pageboy’ cut and the auburn shade was fun.
The wig games that I played meant that I am able to look back on that period with some fond nostalgia – which is a very strange thing considering how ill I was and how often. By 1998 I had lost my hair five different times and grew comfortable and confident enough to go out everywhere completely bald.
Another compensation was that I found out that the back of my head wasn’t so terrible after all! The first time I lost my hair to chemo I was rarely seen without a wig – well I had nine to choose from! The second time – ditto. But by the time I lost it for the fifth time kindly comments in private with intimate friends about the beauty of my head shape helped
me to lose the neurosis. I was sceptical at first but, when I got brave enough to go bald in public, many people found my baldness ‘cool’ or beautiful.
In NY after dinner in 1998 I was sporting full maquillage, a very elegant black suit and a bald head. As about eight of us crossed Second Av at 58th St I was astonished when group of blokes in their 20’s in a car all leaned out of the windows waving ‘thumbs-up’ at me and one shouted, “You look really cool, lady”
I’ve never forgotten it. It was the very last thing you’d expect to happen to a rather sick middle-aged matron, with lines in her chest, who had nearly died from an infection a month
or so earlier and was still under sentence of death. It was a lovely compensation for what was going on in my life at that time – and it would never have happened to me if I hadn’t made peace with my bare head.
Some people worry about their hair ever growing back and, even if it does, they wonder, will it be the same? I did myself at first but I can testify that each of the five times Chemo robbed me of my hair it never failed to grow back in the end. If you shave your head (or anywhere else for that matter!) without benefit of chemo the interrupted hair that grows back is bristly stubble. Post-chemo the texture and colour of the hair was always different to my natural accustomed hair. Initially, it comes back as soft, downy baby hair. I used to call it my Judi Dench hair and I rather liked it. But it didn’t stay like that. Before too long it became ‘poodle-like’ which is an expression of how damaged it has been. It lacked sheen, was harsh and curly. I would lie down for a rest and when I got up it had been flattened into a cartoony sort of ridge shape but, filling a basin with water and dunking my head, it was easy to run my fingers through it and push around until it looked more normal.
I learned a lot from losing my hair. Maybe the most important thing I learned is that you can have a lot of fun with anything – even when the prospect of it horrifies you.