The American Cancer Society’s TLC catalog
A great selection of hats, scarves, and wigs

Salon 475, Lori Irsay
Special Needs for Special People program
Highland Park, Illinois
(847) 432-4372
One of the few salons to specialize in cosmetology for cancer patients.

Nioxin Research Laboratories
1-800-628-9890 or 
(770) 944-1308
Hair-care products designed to prevent hair loss

Who Needs Hair: The Flipside of Chemotherapy
Sallie Astor Burdine
Some very practical advice (and some humor) to help you get through chemotherapy

Not Now ... I'm Having a No Hair Day: Humor & Healing for People With Cancer
Christine Clifford
Chemotherapy is no joke, but humor can help you get through the tough spots—as well as boost your immune system.

Hair—who needs it?

Chemotherapy and radiation are administered to kill cancer cells, which divide and grow rapidly. However, they also affect any other cells in the body that divide quickly, such as those in the hair follicles, the skin, and the mucous membranes of the mouth and the gastrointestinal system. The death of these rapidly-dividing cells usually causes the hair to fall out at the root and can produce mouth ulcers and other problems with the digestive system. Fortunately, I did not suffer from mouth ulcers or intestinal problems. However, I did lose some hair.

Hair loss usually occurs two to three weeks after the first chemotherapy session. The rate of hair loss depends on the individual. Several days before the hair loss or during it, the scalp may feel painful, itchy, or sensitive. All body hair may be affected during chemotherapy, but scalp hair is usually in an active growth phase and is often more affected than other body hair. Hair loss may range from thinning to complete baldness. The hair usually does not grow back until three to six weeks after chemotherapy has ended.

The oncologist told me that I would most likely lose my hair. I knew the statistics, but I also knew that some women were determined not to lose their hair and did not.

My fellow patients have told me that hair loss was probably one of the most difficult things to cope with during their chemotherapy treatment—even though it is less important medically because it is hardly life-threatening. Many felt embarrassed about hair loss. Some felt a little guilty about being concerned about it, because they had more “important” things to worry about.

But hair loss is often the most visible sign that something is wrong and that you are indeed a cancer patient. This was true for me. Walking down the street, no one knew that I was undergoing cancer treatment until I lost half of my hair. It made me stand out and feel self-conscious. Months later I saw another woman walking down the street in Bozeman with the unmistakable signs of chemotherapy, and I wanted to go up to her and give her a big hug. I did not do so, because I did not know whether it would be welcomed or not.

Although I had been told about the prospect of losing my hair and thought that I was prepared for it, it still took me by surprise when it happened. I was paying attention to other matters and working hard at avoiding the other side effects of chemotherapy when I began to notice little hairs everywhere. After two days of noticing hairs on my pillow, it still did not register that the chemotherapy was causing my hair to fall out. It finally hit me one day when I saw how much hair was collecting at the bottom of the shower. Then I noticed that quite a bit of hair would come out every time I ran my fingers over my head. Hairs were everywhere—on the sofa, in the bed, on the floor, on my shoulders. For a while I stopped wearing dark colors.

From that point, I spent a lot of time wondering about what to do if the hair loss got worse. Wear a hat? Shave it off and go beautifully bald? Wear scarves or turbans? Wear a wig?

I did not like a lot of the wigs that I saw on some of the patients, because they looked like wigs and did not seem very natural. I was pretty much prepared to go bald if I needed to. A friend had been standing at a beauty counter next to a very fashionable bald woman who was beautifully made up, and she returned to tell me that she could not wait to see me bald, as she thought I would look really good.

I tried a number of things to give myself the best chance to keep some hair. I had read that satin pillowcases were helpful in preventing hair loss. They are intended to reduce friction and pull on the hair and therefore cause less discomfort and less hair loss. I am not sure if they did, but they certainly felt very smooth and nice against my skin.

I saw a hairstylist early in my course of treatment and told her what I would be going through. Three weeks prior to chemotherapy she recommended some hair-care products by Nioxin specifically formulated to prevent hair loss. I used these products during my course of treatment and as I recovered, and I believe that they were part of what helped me retain some of my hair. They are relatively expensive, but I treated myself with the funds that my mother and sister sent me.

I also used some herbal products on my hair during the chemotherapy phase. I rinsed my hair with stinging nettle tea. I also made up a special formula of oil, which I applied to my hair each day. It consisted of burdock oil, Saint John’s Wort oil, and borage oil in a base of olive oil. I made the burdock oil by simmering burdock roots in olive oil. I added the Saint John’s Wort Oil from a bottled source, and the borage oil I squeezed out of capsules. I poured all of this into a bottle and applied the mixture to my hair each day. Before my shower I would apply the oil to my head and leave it to soak for an hour. I would then shampoo with the Nioxin products. My hair looked healthy and shiny and felt very soft.

On my second visit, the oncologist seemed surprised that I had so much hair left and told me that maybe I would not lose all my hair after all. As it turned out, my hair thinned all over, and then it worsened in certain areas, particularly the front of the hairline and the top of the crown. Peter joked about male-pattern baldness. I began to brush my hair back off my face to cover the bald spots. I eventually lost half to two thirds of my hair. My scalp ached a little for a few days around the time when it really started falling out. I also lost some eyelashes and half my body hair, including my pubic hair.

I wore scarves, baseball caps, and a variety of hats when it was the thinnest. Prior to that, when I first noticed it falling out, I had had it cut short in anticipation of further hair loss. I was very glad that I did, as it made the hair loss seem less noticeable. The hairs were shorter and less distressing to see. There was less of a mess, and it generally felt better. After a while, I got used to hair loss, and it did not bother me as much.

Whether you lose your hair or not, there are ways to cope. Scarves can look really good and can complement an outfit. If I wasn’t sure if I wanted to wear one, I would wear it around my neck and be ready to tie it on my head. Livingston, Montana, is known as one of the windiest cities in the United States, and a scarf was often useful.

Claudia, a fellow patient, looked stunning with a baseball cap over her bald head. She had lost most of her hair following her first chemotherapy session and had then shaved off the rest. We shared a room for chemotherapy, and, inspired by her, I developed my own style.

After Claudia introduced me to baseball caps, I found several on sale at Wal-Mart. White and khaki went with many of my outfits. They were jaunty and made me feel sporty—they helped me remember I was in cancer-fighting mode. I also bought a Greek fisherman’s cap on sale, which I really enjoyed wearing.
One night, just for fun, Peter and I had a fashion parade where I tried on different hats. Peter ended up taking some photos, and the results are shown on the next page. We laughed at all the different looks and sent photos to our families: the “Jackie O” look, with the scarf tied under the chin and dark glasses; the “Maggie Tabberer” look, named after a famous Australian fashion model who wore stunningly short hair pulled back off the face; and “Neroli of the North,” wearing a sheepskin hat with ear flaps. (You might get away with this in Montana in the winter.) Peter liked me best in baseball caps and the fisherman’s hat. We had fun looking at hair loss as an opportunity to make a fashion statement rather than something simply to be endured.

During and after chemotherapy, when my hair was very short and thin, on several occasions men came up to me while shopping to say that they really liked my hair and wished that their wives would adopt a similar style. It often provoked an interesting conversation when I explained that the hairstyle was courtesy of chemotherapy!

Special Needs for Special People

Cancer Treatment Centers of America created their Cosmetic Image Enhancement program to provide support, information, and resources for cancer patients on how to look good during treatment. One two-hour session I attended was given by Lori Irsay, owner of Salon 475 and creator of a program called Special Needs for Special People.

Lori has a great sense of humor, a natural attitude, and a knack for putting people at ease. Her presentations on image enhancement covered everything from how to deal with hair loss (including wigs, fashion turbans, hats, and head covers) to makeup tips. Lori teaches patients how to make the most of their facial features while undergoing hair loss, which may include loss of eyebrows and eyelashes.

Not everyone likes to wear a wig, nor is a wig for everyone. If you are having chemotherapy for a year, then it may well be worth the investment, especially for important occasions. Others I know bought wigs and never used them much. They were too hot and uncomfortable. And perhaps most importantly, they would say, “It’s just not me.”

Lori teaches that there are wigs and there are wigs—from the very cheap synthetic wigs to the expensive $2,000 human-hair wigs. There is a difference, and you do not have to go top of the line to get something that works well. With Lori’s help, I tried on several in the $200 to $500 range that looked really good on me and quite natural. It put me at ease to know that if I ever needed to wear a wig I would feel comfortable doing so.

It is important to be properly fitted for a wig by a specialist. Lori showed me wigs where the hair is attached to a mesh crown that looks very like a normal scalp. Wigs can be cut and styled to suit you. There are also several mail-order wig catalogs available, although it might be hard to get a good fit from a catalog.

If you get a prescription from your doctor for a wig, your insurance plan may cover some or all of the cost. Cancer Treatment Centers of America recommends that the doctor use the words, “Cranial hair prosthesis for medical purposes. Alopecia secondary to chemotherapy or radiation therapy.”

I learned a lot about looking good from Lori and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I welcomed being with other women who understood what I was going through.

There are probably people near you that can help with such information and services. Take advantage of them. My local cosmetologist and hair stylist in Montana became so interested in learning how to help me that she attended a half-day training session to learn how to deal with the cosmetic side of cancer and its treatment. I was very moved by her desire to help me. She is now able to help others who come to her.

Lessons from Losing My Hair

Interestingly, when I was nearly bald, I recalled something that I had said from the time I was first married. Pete is one of those guys who don’t really notice what their partners are wearing. It used to annoy me when were first married. But after a time it did not bother me, for I soon came to see that it did not matter to him how I looked; he simply loved me for myself. I told myself that I could be old and wrinkled one day, and he would still see me as young and lovely. I began to see that as a blessing.

I had even joked with my hairdresser for years that Peter would never notice a change in hairstyle or even hair color. We would laugh, and after each style change, she would ask me if he noticed. He usually didn’t unless I gave him advance warning. In fact, I used to joke that I could turn up bald and he would still not notice. Well, here I was, nearly bald after all these years, and he, of course, did notice and still did not care that I was bald, because he loved me.

I also learned something about the mind-body connection. I was already aware of the fascinating fact that in chemotherapy trials, patients who received placebos could actually lose their hair if told that it was a side effect of the product they were using.[1] The body seemed to obey what the mind was telling it to do, a theory I was able to confirm in my own experience with hair loss.

Since hair loss due to chemotherapy is only temporary and not life threatening, initially I was much more worried about other side effects. During one of my talks with my body elemental and my Higher Self, I told my body that it was to avoid side effects during chemotherapy, but if it had to manifest a side effect, then I would not mind hair loss. It would be better than low white-cell counts or diarrhea or weight loss.

Well, perhaps not surprisingly, my body took me at my word. I had given it permission to lose my hair, and that is what it did. I hoped for the best and prepared for the worst, and in my earnest desire to be prepared for all eventualities, I even began to visualize myself bald to prepare myself for the hair loss should it come.

When I realized that I had actually been sending a message to my body to lose my hair, I reversed my decision very quickly. I was getting very little in the way of side effects, and my body could, indeed, cope very well. It seemed I was losing my hair unnecessarily. So I spoke to my body elemental and Higher Self each night before retiring, and I gave specific instructions. I told my body to stop losing hair, and within three days, it did. The hair loss stopped from that time.

Upon reflection, it would have been better to tell my body not to lose the hair in the first place, and certainly not to visualize myself bald. Regardless of what we put into our body, what we say and what we visualize can indeed come to pass—that is the whole premise of the mind-body connection. If I ever needed to know the power of my thoughts and words to influence my body, here was the proof.

My advice to someone about to undergo chemotherapy and who is worried about potential hair loss is the following: Have a serious talk to your body elemental. Explain that you do not want to lose your hair and that it is to hold onto that hair very firmly by the roots. Visualize your hair as full and healthy. Take care of it with good products.

If it happens that you do not lose your hair, then glory to God and praise to your body elemental! If you do lose your hair, it is not the end of the world. Take it in your stride, seek to look and feel beautiful anyway, and make the best of the situation with all of the help at your disposal. I thought about famous people who were bald and beautiful, like Yul Brynner and Bernie Siegel.

Spiritually speaking, the hair carries the records of our lives, the burdens and stresses we have carried in recent months and years. Losing your hair can be symbolic of new beginnings—losing the old self and putting on the new. Cutting the hair or shaving the head is sometimes performed in religious ceremonies as a symbol of entering a new life. Peter pointed out one day that if I were entering a Buddhist monastery, my head would be shaved as a sign of initiation and the leaving behind of my old life.

Everyone is different as to how they feel about losing their hair. Some of my fellow patients wore their baldness proudly and looked great. Others looked great in a baseball cap, a stylish turban, or a hat. I had several friends who looked very smart in their wigs, and I admired them. Loss of one’s hair is a humbling experience, and in the end I kind of enjoyed even that too. If I were to have chemotherapy again and lose some of my hair, I might shave it all off and start again.

Hair loss is simply another reminder that you never know what to expect in life and you cannot always control it. However, you can make the best of whatever life throws your way.


1. Siegel, Love, Medicine and Miracles, p. 133.


Excerpted from A Journey through Cancer, by Neroli Duffy