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The Identity of Hair: My Experience with Hair Loss and Regrowth after Chemotherapy

By: Lindsay "Dozer" Brookshier

My hair was a large part of my identity before I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in February 2015. I have, for many years of my life, always been a woman that cared quite a bit (highest diva status) about my hair. I curled it, colored it, primped it, fluffed it, whatever. I loved my hair. It was a crucial part to my physical identity. It’s so crucial that here I am talking about it, again, even though I’ve already written on this during treatment.

I know I’m not alone in this. Many other women feel the same way. It sucks, it’s horrible, it’s one of the worst things about treatment. No one wants to lose their hair.

But there’s so many women who pull themselves up, (Shannon Doherty’s battle with breast cancer is a great example of this bravery) and wear the bald with pride and poise. It’s so raw, honest, and amazing.

This is something that I have always admired so much. It is real. It is courageous. It is beautiful.

It’s also something that I was never comfortable doing myself.

Even on the days I felt like hell in a hand basket traveling down a stream of chemical misery, I would put that wig on. Every time I left the house, I would wear that wig. Most of the time I wore my wigs to my chemo sessions at the clinic and maybe I’d take them off during infusions but they’d always go back on for selfies (important for that blogging process!) or when I would have visitors. Despite how uncomfortable and miserable those wigs were, I would wear them almost daily. It was the one aspect of treatment I could control to at least look as normal as I wanted to feel. Eyebrows and eyelashes (of course, there’s plenty of options for those too!) are more challenging to replicate but a wig was just so accessible.

I felt so hideously ugly and alien without a wig.

I was just not comfortable being seen as the sick cancer girl. Maybe part of it was wrapped up in the loss of my vanity that I had for my hair. Or perhaps part of it was how I viewed my cancer as a weakness that some might exploit. Now looking back on it, I think it was a combination of both. I’ll never forget, like so many of us, the absolute utter devastation I felt when those first few strands of hair fell out. It was almost as bad as the day I was diagnosed with cancer. I cried that day. I didn’t cry the day I was diagnosed. Something about losing my hair, losing the core of my physical identity, shattered my reality.

When I hit remission, thankfully, I began obsessing over when my hair would grow back. And when my hair was a stubby GI Jane cut, is about when I began meeting other cancer survivors. It humbled me to see others with worse cancers than mine and reminded me of how lucky I am. In the bigger picture, it’s just hair.

But in many situations, there has been so much isolation in some of the physical insecurities that come along with the impact of chemotherapy. I should just be grateful that I’m alive, I shouldn’t still lament how much I hate my short hair. I shouldn’t be miserable over all the weight I’ve gained. I should learn to live with my scars.

Telling survivors that they should just be thankful for the bigger picture, completely negates the stark reality of the low self-esteem issues that can strike the most confident of us after a battle of cancer. I know I am not alone in this. My self-esteem after cancer, although it improves with each inch of hair regrowth, was horrible after watching my body drastically change in such a short time. Yet so often we’re told the “just be grateful to be alive!” narrative that we dismiss so much of these issues of self-image and self-esteem that can eat away at us. And yes, I am grateful to be alive. Every single day, I am grateful. Yet insecurities of weight and physical appearance are already a huge issue for young adults (and all age groups) that impact people’s lives in serious and life threatening ways. Cancer survivors are not exempt from these insecurities. And if our treatment has made them worse or created insecurities that never existed before, this needs to be addressed.

Mental health is important too.

And mental health can be so connected (for women AND men) to issues of personal appearance that it is insane to not address how this impacts cancer survivors, especially young adults, that have just experienced sudden and drastic changes to their body that they may be struggling to accept.

Bald is beautiful, of course it is. But for some of us, we never felt beautiful as bald. And that voice needs to be in the conversation too. That it is okay to not feel beautiful while bald. When my hair was growing back, I used to just sit (I’m still guilty of this) and stare at pictures of my hair before I lost it. It’s going to take a long time until it’s that long again. This is a real mourning process, one that I am just now finally learning to accept over a year later as my hair has reached a length I am finally comfortable with. Yet I always felt stupid for lamenting my hair so constantly. After all, I was alive. What is hair in the bigger picture of survival?

Hair is such a core identity marker and for survivors like me, losing that piece of yourself can be devastating. It’s something that for so many of us becomes an uphill battle of self-acceptance. And it’s okay to feel that way.

Lindsay (Dozer) Brookshier grew up in Colorado and spent half of her adult life in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. She and her six year old son currently reside in Fort Collins as she bulldozes her way through a MA degree in English literature while teaching college composition. She went on her first trip with First Descents summer 2016 to Hood River and learned how to white water kayak with initial terror followed by immense enthusiasm. Since then she has become hooked to the spiritual experience of pushing her limits, embracing nature, and Out Living It. One of her greatest passions is writing blogs that advocate for young adult cancer awareness with her favorite subjects centering on struggles of parenthood, patient advocacy, and self image. You can follow her most recent blog posts here: https://medium.com/@lindsay.brookshier

13 thoughts on “The Identity of Hair: My Experience with Hair Loss and Regrowth after Chemotherapy”

  1. Great thoughts! When I learned I wouldn’t need chemo and the hair thing wouldn’t be an issue it actually made me guilty. To this day, three years later, I haven’t had a real haircut because I have this notion that I need to be grateful that I didn’t lose it and shouldn’t just chop it off because it’s annoying. It’s funny that I think/stress about my scarred up chest less than whether I’m “allowed” to cut my hair. Cancer does weird things to our emotions that’s for sure! Thanks for sharing your story!

  2. Thank you so much for sharing. It’s really great to know that others have experienced what I have gone and am currently going through. Two years post bone marrow transplant, and my hair is still short, think and has bald spots. My doctors told me they don’t know if the bald spots will ever go away because of some of the chemo therapy. The journey to self-acceptance in the post-treatment body is difficult. Kudos to you for writing this article.

  3. I loss my hair twice due to chemotherapy. I have NSCLC (Non small cell lung cancer). my pride was really on the edge. I remember crying while I was taking a shower. What was left fell completely out. I was so sad that I starting crying. I have no problem with my hair loss now. its apart of me now. It is growing back and looks like it maybe a little. curly. And that is ok. I’m thankful I have made this far. I’m in stage 4, and was in stage 4 when I was diagnose with NSCLC. I’m doing ok for now. Thanks for reading this blog..

  4. I was diagnosed with Endometrail Cancer. I am so glad I came by your article. I was googling about hair growth after chemo and when I could die it again. My hair is a big part of who I am just like you. Seeing it coming in all grey is making me feel not good. I had always died my hair never seen it grey just the roots. I have a beautiful wig but it’s uncomfortable . I had it shaped by a hairdresser she did a great job but only wear it once in a while . I wear the decorative caps during my whole course of treatment. Any suggestions about when it is the right time to die my hair.

  5. I lost my hair, all of it, about 4 weeks after I completed chemotherapy. My hair was beautiful thick Lush blond almost down to my waist. I was 64 but with my hair didn’t look like it. It’s coming back slowly in Gray stubbles that look like one of those women who only gets her hair cut in barber shops. I know this probably makes me shallow but my hair has been such a part of my identity my pride for so long. I feel like people who say it’s just hair just don’t get it.

  6. Glad i read this. I went through alot of the same feelings crying. …loss of hair ….body changes due to cancer. And chemo….i am greatful others shared openly .it helps me tremendously . Thank you. Mike from pa 64

  7. I finished chemo (for breast cancer) 6 years ago. Before cancer and chemo, I had an abundance of lovely and healthy hair. So yes, losing my hair was a sad week even though I knew that week was coming. I was told not to worry, that my hair would return after my treatments were completed. Well, that fortune was apparently not mine to have. What I am left with is a large bald patch on the top of my head and another bald patch on the front right side, right above my eyebrow. I wear wigs when I go out and they are comfortable and lightweight for the most part. My eyebrows and lashes also remain sparse but I am dealing with them without any trauma. I was on a regimen of Anastrozole For 5 years and one of its side effects was thinning hair. I was told by my oncologist that I could stop that treatment, which I did 10 months ago. I haven’t seen any hair growth. If anyone has information about this, please share it with me.

  8. Thank you for sharing. I’m bald right now and I’ve always had beautiful hair. I went through a bone marrow transplant for multiple Myeloma for which there is no cure. I started losing my hair after two weeks of chemo and every time I look in the mirror I scare myself. I feel awful for feeling this way but I’m almost sorry I went through the transplant. I’m trying to build up my strength and get something back that resembles who I used to be before the cancer. I just don’t recognize myself anymore. Thanks for listening.

  9. People in my area have no knowledge of the fact that fast hair growth amino scalp therapy shampoos (of course with no sulfates, no parabens or DEA) exist. Hair styling enthusiasts are now able to experience longer hair and attain more possibilities. For sure worth exploring.

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    Clearly the content on this page hits the nail in the head for various reasons. It steers away from the usual traps and errors too many fall into: getting defective alternatives. Thank you so much!

    1. I have been taking10000 grms of biotin along with prenatal vitamin after my chemo.Very satisfied with the post chemo hair.Not the same ,but at least I have hair,Did notcompletely loose it.New hair started growing in while I was on chemo,weird right did not shave head.Just cleaned up whatever hair fell out.Wore scarves for awhile ,then I said forget this and no more serves.felt so much better.R

  10. I had breast cancer, tumor removed and all margins completely clear. the Oncotype was only slightly above the cutoff of 25 (mine 29) and I had one cycle of chemo with the God awful Neulasta which nearly killed me with bone pain, this was about 3 weeks ago. I have lost most of my hair already. I would be due for another treatment this Friday, August 27, but I refuse to continue. I cannot handle the chemo or Neulasta. I have agreed to do the radiation and try the anti-estrogen (anastrazole), but if I cannot tolerate it, I will not continue it. Quality of life is too important to me at age 67. I have gone through 4 major painful spine surgeries in the past 9 years and finally got my life back when I got this diagnosis. all that being said, I really pray my hair comes back. doctors and nurses assured me that it would definitely come back. since I decided to stop treatment and only had one cycle, I was wondering when I could see hair growth again?

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