Cold Caps and Clippers
Cold Caps and Clippers
By Sam Reynolds
“Symbolic of life, hair bolts from our head[s]. Like the earth, it can be harvested, but it will rise again. We can change its colour and texture when the mood strikes us, but in time it will return to its original form, just as Nature will in time turn our precisely laid-out cities into a weed-way.”
— Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses
There is a lot to be said for a women's identity being defined by her hair. It has been a standard joke between me and my friends that having Sam over for the night means inviting the GHD straighteners as well! If our hair doesn't look right, we don't feel right. It's a girl thing. I was told from the start of treatment I would lose my hair. Initially the idea didn't bother me. My father is a make-up designer in the film industry so we joked about the wigs I could wear and the styles I could try. In the initial throws of 'staying positive' I tried to look on it as fun! Fun, maybe not, but now, with perspective, it was totally life affirming.
As soon as treatment started I had a 'cancer look'. It went from glowy, fresh and clear to drained, tired and grey. Initially everyone exclaimed, in a somewhat surprised way, how amazing I looked, because, naturally, after a diagnosis you are expected to develop two heads, a tail, horns and scales. Then, as the treatment took hold, the grey veil of fatigue fell and I had a hard time remembering what I looked like before. Bizarrely in the early stages, chemo seemed to do what I can only assume creme de la mer does for Jane Fonda! I had never had such a clean and clear complexion but despite the youthful, dewey glow, I had no long flowing tendrils to frame my face, no eye brows to groom and no eyelashes to comb. Everything was stripped back, naked, like a blank canvas. It felt raw, vulnerable, exposed and unfamiliar but with that came a rush of invincibility and liberation.
Day one of chemo and trying the cold cap made for a welcome distraction from the endless forms required to apply for incapacity benefit so the nervous sighing turned to total hilarity. I looked like a jockey about to race in the Derby. I couldn't hear anything, which proved even more amusing since my mother (who seems to have been going deaf in old age for the last ten years) and I made a proper pair yelling at each other across a room the size of a postage stamp! It also had that familiar childhood sensation of slurping a MacDonald’s milk shake too quickly (I bloomin wish!) and that crazy condition called Freeze Brain throbbed in my head, except it stuck around for a good few hours! Needless to say, it was the first and last time I bothered with that one.
Day seven post first chemo, that horrific moment came when, while drying my hair, a rather large clump of it stuck to my brush. Panic ensued and an emergency call was made to a good friend who was a hair dresser. The resulting event was something out of Steel Magnolias. While I sat having my hair chopped from shoulder length locks to pixie crop, with, I admit, the odd tear, two other girl friends fussed around me diligently like bees to the queen. They were precious moments and as Tania gritted her teeth, ignoring the bald patches already forming on the back of my head, (that I was blissfully unaware of) the other two pranced around the cosy conservatory demonstrating what could be done with a headscarf. It was a much needed day of female solidarity and I look back with such gratitude and fondness for that.
The pixie look was so short lived Victoria Beckham would have been proud! My scalp was so sore and sensitive and a few days after the second chemo session, I woke to short little hairs completely covering my pillow. I remember calling my father who was working abroad at the time. I didn't know what to do but I couldn't continue like this. There was only one thing for it so after a frenzy of phone calls, a friend of Dads swiftly arrived with a pair of clippers, a bag of wigs and a very big smile (he had just shaved off Natalie Portmans hair for V for Vendetta for a one shot wonder so I would be a doddle!)
“A woman who cuts her hair is about to change her life.”
- Coco Chanel
Sitting in mums kitchen before it all came off was one of the most surreal moments I have ever experienced. It was like ripping off the plaster. I had to do it. I didn't give myself the choice. The discomfort and sight of all that hair anywhere but on my head was heart wrenching. As the humming of the clippers started and I felt the cold sensation of them on my head I constantly consoled myself of the fact that it was only temporary. I even felt a little relief. Mum, however, kept exclaiming what a perfect shaped head I had (well, she would wouldn't she?!)
And then the lightness I felt gave way and I met my new alter ego, Miss Egghead! When I saw my reflection, it was Sigourney Weaver in Alien. I looked just like her and I was facing the biggest alien thing in the universe. A twenty six year old life without hair.
After trying a couple of wigs and feeling perhaps more akin to something out of the Famous Five rather than a glamorous Joan Collins, it was quickly decided that wigs were not my thing. I found them uncomfortable and hot and as my scalp was so irritable, I decided scarves were more me. I had done one of the hardest things in my life, to hold onto some sense of personal identity and felt I couldn't hide it under something that wasn't genuinely 'Sam'. At the time, Kylie was going through her own battle and there were magazine pictures of her wearing beanies and headscarves which I ripped out obsessively and stuck on my diary. She was my role model and if she could do it, so could I.
It frightens me to say, as it was only eight years ago, but there were no You Tube videos to demonstrate how to wear a headscarf then. Social media was only just getting started so, one cold February morning, with one rather fetching cream woollen M&S beany pulled over one very naked head, (I was clearly putting warmth over glamour!) I hit Accessorize like a bull in a china shop. I was a woman with a mission, to buy an array of headscarves to match every outfit, and I dared anyone to stop me! Two hours later I emerged from said store exhausted, frustrated and disappointed with one measly headscarf to show. It wasn't bright and daring but typical me, pink and grey, and my positive, determined demeanour had been squashed after standing in the cramped changing room relentlessly trying to tie it in several different knots where it wouldn't slip off my head, agitate my sensitive follicles and tuck just behind my ears without making me look like a 90's replica of Pob. It was all very new and very daunting and if I had ever had an excuse to sulk after a bad shopping spree, it was now!
It didn't matter how many 'It suits you's' were reassuringly said, being bald, however temporary, was challenging. I slept in a cashmere beany at night because it was so cold. I had to search to find softer headscarves because so many irritated my head or slipped off but when the hair did start growing back, elation reigned. I was now Rapunzal, with a fully blurred hairline of duckling fuzz! I photographed the growth each month, swearing I would never cut my hair again! Yet, despite all the pain, discomfort and identity crisis, I now have a short haircut which I adore. I never imagined I would walk up the aisle on my wedding day with short hair and now, I can't imagine having anything but.
My eyebrows never really grew back as dark as they had been but that was nothing a bit of eyebrow pencil couldn't help. My eyelashes were replaced with fake ones, though there were frequent sprints to various mirrors to re align unstuck poky in the eye casualties that were always more obvious to me than to anyone else and well, I never missed hairy legs (or other regions!) Who would miss her Venus razor at a time like this?!
Cancer is like an octopus. One of its many tentacles is hair loss. Everyone handles it in their own way but one thing that unites those of us affected is the stranger in the mirror. It affects the patient and the carers. It is unsettling, distorting and scary but once you have confronted those feelings, that loss of familiar identity, you can welcome the new one. That same woman who has stared vulnerability in the face and said, 'Come on then, do your worst,' is still the same woman who loves cookie dough ice cream, dancing to Abba and secretly watching Made In Chelsea. She gets a new head of hair that she can grow, cut, colour, straighten and curl however she wants, to reflect a woman who has emerged from the rawness of cancer, more stunning, self-aware and proud. If temporarily being Miss Egghead can strengthen, encourage and transform our own self-image and self-belief, it can't all be bad. Being bald is definitely brave but all that it brings just makes you bolder and more beautiful, inside and out.
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brilliant, laughing & crying. Cold cap flashbacks, shaving my head & smooth legs, fab :)
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