Cancer Column: Hair loss and hospital beds

My hair has decided it no longer wants to be part of my head. Wonderful.

I wasn’t sure when the right time to write this article was. When the first strands started to fall out? When I become fully bald? But after waking up this morning to find a nest of my own hair on my pillow, now seemed right. As I write this, I am freshly bald. After some serious thinning throughout the day, enough was enough and I took to the clippers.

The result? Voila.

I was told hair loss would be inevitable, just the same as pretty much most chemotherapy patients and, though this blog post doesn’t really say too much, it feels good to write.

Though hair loss is the least painful out of the seemingly thousands of side effects cancer and chemotherapy constantly throw at me, it’s seemed to have the strongest effect on me so far. Nausea, intense fatigue, night sweats, heart palpitations, headaches, muscle and bone pain, anaemia, changes in taste and appetite, memory loss and confusion & mouth sores are all side effects that bare no public form. My suffering is private and behind closed doors (or curtains on wards), but hair loss is pretty damn obvious and the change everyone notices. I don’t think I was ready for it.

What really gets me, is how many comment on how it’s easier for me because I’m a guy. Being male apparently means that caring that I can’t stop myself from looking like somebody who is ill is not important or emotionally difficult. I enjoy making myself look good before going out (though, I admit, I’m not the prettiest egg in the basket). I don’t have copious wig options and will eventually be limited to a wardrobe of hats.

I am beginning to resemble a person I do not recognise. As I catch myself in the mirror, I don’t see myself anymore.

I’ve lost weight in the most undesirable ways, watched the hue drain from my skin and felt the strength fade from my legs. Hair loss has just added to this alternative version of a healthier self. Coping and accepting that I have cancer has been one thing, but coping and accepting that I look like I have cancer is another thing. I don’t want people to look at me with sympathy like I’m on some sort of mortal countdown.

Last Wednesday, I started displaying some alarming symptoms while recovering at home after my first round of chemotherapy. I went to A&E and ended up spending five days in a bleak room on a ward by myself. I had become what’s called ‘neutropenic’ and picked up a simple infection my body wasn’t able to fight, meaning that in the past 14 days, 10 of them have been in a hospital bed. Basically, the way chemo works is by destroying rapidly growing cells, both good and bad. Chemo destroys the cancer cells lurking in my chest, but also the likes of white bloods cells, intestinal cells and hair follicles, Because I had no white blood cells to fight off the infection, obviously I got ill. To cut a long story short, it was my picc line that they suspected to be the route of the infection and I’m now awaiting my third picc line to be inserted after this one was taken out. Oh, the glamour.

And when did the hair loss begin? Whilst making myself look a little presentable after a few shower-less days in hospital, I noticed the first clump of hair fall from my hand and into the sink in front of me. I spent the next twenty minutes staring at the few strands that had vacated my head in a blurred anxious nausea. From that moment onwards it’s been fast, extremely fast. I constantly feel like I’m walking into cobwebs, wiping my own hair off my face. I had a bath last night and had to take a sieve used to catch food going down the sink with me to collect my hair. I’m worried to leave the house without a hat on in case the wind blows and I resemble a human version of the dandelion covered in seeds. I couldn’t imagine that would be too pleasant for the person walking behind me.

But I shouldn’t moan, this is all part of the treatment and one of which I’m intensely grateful I can readily access. This first round of chemo, matched with the neutropenic sepsis has hit me hard, but if I’ve kept one thing on my mind all the time, it’s that this is all temporary. This suffering is temporary. Every day is one step closer to getting my barnet back. Each day is a step closer to beating cancer’s ass.


Words // Dean Eastmond @deanvictorr