You Don't Have to Wear a Scarf If Chemo Makes Your Hair Fall Out
For people who've undergone treatments for cancer, hair loss is a common but nevertheless stressful side effect. And, contrary to popular belief, the hard part isn't over when your hair starts to return. Here, survivor Susan Chinn shares the story of how she learned to love her post-chemo hair — with and without accessories. This piece is part of our series on women's experiences with cancer and hair loss.
Name: Susan Chinn
Location: Aiea, Hawaii
Profession: Communications manager
Diagnosis: Ovarian cancer, diagnosed at 35
My hair started to grow back a few months after my last chemo. It was long prior to chemo, halfway down my back. After my diagnosis, I cut it into a shoulder-length bob to prepare for the hair loss. I'm happy to say it's been 12 years since chemo, so I've gone through plenty of hairstyles since then. I grew it out and chopped off 12 inches. Now I'm back to my tried-and-true bob.
I loved my fine, rabbit-soft hair when it first grew out. My hair has been stick-straight since birth, so I was excited about the new [curly] texture. But when it started to grow, the curls disappeared and my straight, coarse hair returned. My hair is now back to its original texture. But believe me, I'm not complaining.
During my treatment, I chose to take time off from work. When I returned to work, I tried the scarf thing. I matched scarves to my outfits, wore different lengths, and tried different tying techniques, but then I realized something: It was a lot of work. It was uncomfortable. And it was hot. I wasn't fooling anyone by hiding behind a scarf.
I decided to ditch the scarves and embrace the baldness. While I was growing out my hair, I met a woman who had alopecia. "Chemo," I said, pointing to my head. "At least it will grow back," she replied. That was a turning point for me.
How I handled the awkward phase: Have you ever tried to tame Asian hair? Talk about a growing-out phase! I needed a product that would weigh down my hair, which tended to just stick out. I used a great Aveda styling product that unfortunately they don't make anymore. I liked it because it was thick and worked its magic, and made my bedhead look intentional.
While I was growing out my hair, I met a woman with alopecia. "Chemo," I said, pointing to my head. "At least it will grow back," she replied.
Favorite hair milestone: I wanted my first haircut so badly. I was so excited to have hair that was long enough to cut! When I sat in the chair, I could tell I didn't have enough hair for a trim, but the stylist was nice enough to clean up the edges. I don't even think she charged me.
Pet peeve: I remember returning to work with my dome shining bright. Daily activities like attending meetings were awkward and intimidating. I was self-conscious and convinced that all eyes were focused on my bald head. I remember a coworker saying, "You look cool, like a Star Trek character." While my self-esteem was crushed, I held my head high and pretended it didn't bother me. After a while, I started to believe it.
Funniest moment: Living in Hawaii, the beach is our backyard. While it was growing out, my hair had a mind of its own. It was too short to lay flat. It was too thick to lay down. So it just stuck straight out. After a day at the beach, my friends and I would laugh at my Pat Benatar hair (which was not the desired look). Laughter is the best medicine.
Biggest lesson: Feeling beautiful while bald is powerful.
Advice for other women growing back their hair post-treatment: Your hair will grow back. It may seem like it’ll take forever, but it will grow.
— As told to Jennifer Garam. Survivor interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
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