Upon hearing you have cancer, the thing people will ask you about, more than anything else, more than your diagnosis, more than the treatment, more than surgery:
“But will you lose your hair??”
And that’s only the executive summary of queries. Will you wear a wig? Are you doing a synthetic or human hair wig? Will you shave it off? Will it fall out? Won’t it be easier not to shampoo your hair? Does it fall out down there? (Yes, if you must know. Easiest Brazilian ever.)
One friend suggested a cold cap? “You can keep your hair that way!” she said. Cold cap? Huh? Like many things related to cancer which I’d never thought about before in my life, this sent me down the Google rabbit hole on a process which is about $600 a month where, during chemotherapy, you wear an iced cap on your head which has to be changed at least every hour and kept in the infusion center’s refrigerator. It’s painful, it’s expensive. No thanks. I already had enough of that.
Most figured I’d be really freaked out about losing my hair, for many women it can be devastating and traumatic. Would it be for me? While I was a nervous about it, I was strangely excited, too. I’ve always been one to futz with my hair, change it up, try new hairdos. I’ve written about this before:
“As a kid, my mom nixed new hairstyles, because I couldn’t stop sporting new dos. To be fair, they were pretty crazy: a high side ponytail jettisoning out like a spigot; two elastic affixed tracks, a la Jo from The Facts of Life, a head full of mini braids in 8th grade that I’d sleep in overnight to make my hair frizzy and wild.”
This would be was like forced futzing with my hair. Yes! While I couldn’t control the fall-out, I could investigate brand new hats, wigs and scarves.
But hold up, would mine actually fall out?
This Is a Story About Control…
“Yes, your hair will fall out,” said my doctor during my first week of chemotherapy.
“Like, tomorrow?” I asked with trepidation.
“No…usually in the first three weeks.”
Ok, ok. This was something I could plan for.
“But what if it doesn’t fall out?” I pressed her.
“It will probably fall out. 95% of my patients on Taxol experience hair loss. And when it falls out, it falls out in clumps… it’s not the best feeling. You’ll feel more control if you shave it.“
The doctor sent me into action: spreadsheets, phone calls. I immediately made an appointment with my hairstylist friend Heart to come over to my apartment at the three-week mark. I lined up a few close friends to join in the fun. There would be champagne, of course. It sounded fun, actually.
I was looking forward to seeing what was underneath my thick mound of decades-long chemically-processed-and-dyed hair. That being said, my hair has always been one of my prouder components: thick, with a slight wave and a cultivated white stripe at the front. Who knew what would be underneath it all? I thought of it as a new look. Plus, it will grow back. Er, right? The concept didn’t feel as devastating as I thought — but you never know. I might crumple into tears with the first touch of a razor.
When you experience cancer, you grab on to the things you can control: your nutrition and what you eat, tracking your symptoms, taking anti-nausea meds in advance, shaving your own damn head.
This would be something I could control. Or so I thought.
During the weeks before the big shave, I went wig shopping. (Pro tip: Wigs are potentially reimbursable if you’re prescribed a “cranial prosthesis.” Ah semantics.)
I was looking forward to potentially fabulous wigs — I’m a fan of the flamboyant hairpiece. But as the concept sunk in, that this might be something I’d want to wear on the regular — to avoid sidewalk glares or to cloak myself at a meeting — I paused on the two-foot high blue bouffant. (Although maybe I’d get that too).
A nurse at my doctor’s office handed me an overly Xeroxed print out of three wig makers’ business cards. Most seemed to be personal out-of-home businesses, not wig shops, and their cards were sprinkled with graphic hearts or flowers and words like “understanding” and “sympathetic.”
I called one of the numbers and a woman answered abruptly,
“Um, hi. Do you sell wigs?”
“Oh… yeah, I’ll have my husband call you back. I’m at my daughter’s recital. “
About 20 minutes later, a man called me back and told me in a thick Russian accent, that he could come over with any number of wigs I desired. No storefront. Just wigs. This was sounding a little more disconcerting by the minute. He also asked me to WhatsApp him a picture of my current head.
“Can’t I text it to you?”
“Vat’s App much better.”
So I sent him my headshot and he sent me pictures of wigs that looked like they were shot in someone’s messy bathroom.
I wrote back, thanks! Are these human hair or synthetic?”
He wrote back in all caps: “IT’S HUMAN HAIR IMPORTED FROM RUSSIA!!!”
As I learned, people are fussy about the origin of their fake follicles. “EUROPEAN HAIR ONLY,” he elaborated. Ridiculous.
When said dude texted me a picture of a mannequin bust with a wig with a pin stuck in its eye I figured it was time to do a bit more research.
I got recommendations from friends and hair stylists, warnings about certain overcharging wigmakers. I watched YouTube videos about wigs (YouTuber Erin Leigh’s videos about her overall chemo experience are fantastic by the way). I surfed Wigs.com for hours.
I eventually settled on Helena Collection, a midtown NYC shop that appeared to be a bit more economical than the others. Appeared being the operative word. It’s shocking what wigmakers charge — a good human hair wig can run into the $2000 range and higher. You’d think they’d give you the life or death discount.
With friends Karen and Stacy in tow, I tried on several wigs, none of which looked like “me.” Helena, the owner, said she could mimic the stripe in my hair, but I preferred to try something new — this was an opportunity after all, one I probably (hopefully) will never have again. Blonde, curly, long, short. Eventually I settled on a long bob, not dissimilar from my current hairstyle and an auburn shade — it had to be handcrafted, of course. I was snookered into the idea of human hair (this one from India they told me sheepishly, hair racism is alive and well in the world of wigs) because you could style it, wash it, curl it.
“It looks more real.”
Ok, fine, $1400 later I barely balked at the price, I just wanted to be done with this and move on. I was starting to get nervous.
The Best Laid Plans…
While waiting for my wig to be ready, my hair in fact started falling out, three weeks into chemo.
Here came the clumps.
Combing through my hair was like pulling off bits of cotton candy — downy pieces of dead hair that drifted to the bathroom floor. It was good to know it would actually happen, just like my doctor said it would. But this wasn’t my timeline. The shave wasn’t supposed to happen until Sunday.
I frantically texted my good friend Karen. “It’s happening.”
Now there was no time, it had to go. Heart wasn’t available, so Karen, amazing pal that she is, rang up a local salon which couldn’t take me until 1pm.
Karen suggested, “Should we bro it out at a barber shop?”
So as a last ditch resort, we opted for the Brooklyn Neighborhood Cut and Shave (that’s actually what it’s called.) where Karen’s husband and son get their heads cut. I had to put on my brave face. Would I cry? Get emotional? I had no idea.
And here’s what transpired:
It was in some ways a surprisingly magical experience. Everything came together. It turned out to be the right place, with a great friend by my side. The barber was a pro, he knew to shave just close to the head but not too smooth, and bonus, they gave us shots whiskey. And I didn’t cry! Not even a whimper — and I’m known to shed easy tears. Something about this experience made me feel proud and ballsy as hell.
It didn’t hurt that my head shape was surprisingly round. I actually looked kinda cool. This was the new me. The new normal.
The thing about going through cancer and chemo and illness — Sometimes you’re more emotional than you think you’re going to be, other times you find strength you never knew you had.
A week later, when I picked up my wig, it wasn’t exactly what I’d dreamed of. I’d envisioned a sleek, new office-ready look; a shield for which no one would know I was sick.
Alas, it looked like a wig.
The bangs were down to my nose so I (stupidly) had them shorten them — and now they were far too small. Not much you can do after that. A few days later I took it to another hairstylist to have her cut it into a better shape, which she did, but, alas, it still looked like a wig. And I decided the color was too weird and red. It was semi comfortable on my head but after about 20 minutes felt scratchy and hot.
I realized I felt better having nothing on my head, commando-style, living my life as just me. I liked my bald head! I got compliments on my bald head! And with bright lipstick and cool shades well, I could make this work.
There are plenty of pros: showers are fast and I never have a bad hair day. There are no random strands of hair on the bathroom floor. I’m lighter! And it feels kind of cool to run my hand over my stubbly head.
There are some cons. When I roll over in bed tiny sprigs of coarse hair catch the pillow like Velcro. Some of my hair is slowly creeping back only to partially fall out again with the next chemotherapy treatment. So, I’m left with these tiny salt-and-pepper spikes. I usually reach to my bedside table for a hat, which helps. Someone suggested silk pillowcases.
You figure out what works.
My nine-year-old niece decided I should still have that flamboyant wig I desired so she and her Mom bought me a $25 purple and gray striped wig that actually looks better than the $1400 one. A friend also brought over a huge white, former drag queen wig that’s part Dolly Parton, part Mozart, and indescribably brilliant.
I still love wigs, I just prefer the crazy, silly ones that don’t pretend. Most of the time I’m just rocking my big, badass baldness. And I look damn good doing it.
I’d love to hear any tips from others about their own experience with hair loss or wig-seeking. And of late, tips on tying a funky turban.
Read more of Margit’s column, Ovarian Rhapsody: