I Knew I'd Lose My Hair -- I Didn't Know It Would Happen In Just One Day
35-year-old Emily describes her hair as always being an integral part of her identity.
“It’s my identifier. It was a major target for bullying growing up and it has taken me a long time to love it," she told 10 daily.
"I was finally in a space when I was loving how it looked and embracing it."
But last year, a cancer diagnosis saw her thick, long curls -- a much-cherished part of who Emily is -- fall out as a side effect of chemotherapy.
Although hair loss is widely associated with cancer and chemotherapy, what isn’t as commonly known is how suddenly and severely it can occur; the result of which can be quite shocking and emotionally distressing for those experiencing it first hand, which was the case for Emily.
In June 2019, Emily was diagnosed with Triple Negative Breast Cancer, a less common but extremely aggressive form of the disease. A part of the treatment was a very strong course of chemotherapy.
Doctors explained the potential side effects to Emily prior to her treatment and provided some suggestions of how to combat these, including a cold cap, a device used to freeze hair follicles which can prevent hair loss or slow it down.
“It stops the chemo from attacking the hair cells as much. It is quite painful, and it extends treatment by about an hour and a half, but the doctors said it can help hair grow back quicker, so I decided to pursue it," Emily said.
Prior to beginning her chemo, Emily said she felt prepared for the side effect of losing some hair.
“I felt like I would be ready for it. I thought it would thin out, but I had a lot of hair, so it probably wouldn’t be too bad.”
Despite this and using the cold cap, a significant amount of her hair did fall out. And for Emily, the process of losing her hair was one of the most traumatic parts of her journey; not just because of the hair loss itself but of how it occurred.
Emily said this was never fully explained to her and the experience left her 'traumatised'.
“It happens all at once. The first sign of it was a Friday night I went to the footy. It was after my second or third chemo treatment," Emily said.
I had my hair in a long side plait and my scalp started to get itchy. When I got home my plait was all knotted and a fair bit of hair came out.
But it was the next morning that Emily said was the most severe.
“It was crazy. I got up and my hair was just a massive knot; my whole head. I had to wash my hair and it took me about 45 minutes to get the knots out and it was just coming out in handfuls," she explained.
“I was pretty shaken, but I had a kid’s first birthday party that day so tied it back and went.”
Emily said that the whole way there her hair continued to fall out.
“I was putting it on the floor next to me in the car."
By the time Emily arrived at the party, she had already lost a significant amount of hair, but it continued to fall out while she was there.
“I got to the party and it kept falling out. Not wanting to leave hair all over the house, although I’m sure I did, I was putting it all in my pockets. I could just feel it matting too but I didn’t want to touch it because of the fall," she told 10 daily.
"Once I was leaving I got all my hair off my jumper and out of my pockets. There was this massive tumble weed of it rolling down the road. It was so traumatic. I remember shaking and having major anxiety while it was happening."
The following morning, Emily continued to suffer massive hair loss, being so matter she said it resembled 'a well loved Barbie doll's hair'.
"I took the Monday off work to mentally regroup, I just couldn’t go to work with that happening," Emily said.
"By the end of Monday, it had slowed right down. I would say in about 24 hours I lost 50 percent of my hair and that was with the cold cap.”
To assist with the knotting, that afternoon, Emily’s sister in law cut her hair into a bob at home with a pair of house scissors.
“They pulled my hair less than hair scissors, so it wasn’t as painful. Plus, with curly hair it doesn’t matter if it was a bit uneven,” she explained.
Although the most drastic part of her hair loss had now occurred, the change in her appearance impacted Emily’s identity, something she is still grappling with, even now after completing her treatment and being given the official all clear.
“I have had people not recognise me with the change. I just want it to be long again because that is my choice. I think it is a part of feeling independent again and back in control," she told 10 daily.
If she could go back and give herself any words of advice of experiencing chemo, Emily said they would be these:
"Your hair loss will happen in one day. Cut your hair shorted to help with the tangling before it starts because the knotting is diabolical. Know that when it falls out, it hurts. When it grows back it hurts, like a pony tail in the wrong spot."
Featured image: Supplied
To find out more, you can visit the Breast Cancer Network Australia.