June 08, 2021

One Woman On Her Relationship With Cancer And Hair Loss

Hair loss and cancer often go hand in hand. Cancer, in short, is ugly. It is uncomfortable and forces oneself to see beyond the physical, even though the physical is all one can see. 

The relationship women have with hair is complex. It isn’t trivial, as many are led to believe. Our identity, femininity and sense of self is tied to the strands of hair on our head. So, when cancer comes calling and the threat of losing it unwillingly becomes real, how does one deal with it? 

I sat down with Maddie King, who was 19 when she was diagnosed with Stage IV Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, to talk about cancer and hair loss.

Talk to me about the emotion behind losing your hair due to something you can’t control. How did you come to shave it off?

When you live in and out of hospital and between medical appointments in ‘fight or flight mode’, the consideration of physical appearance kind of takes a back seat for the initial time being. That’s not to say I wasn’t upset; it just wasn’t top of mind. But when the time came… it was a lot. I went to the hairdressers to shave it off and I cried. It was very emotional.

Did shaving it off make it the cancer feel real? 

Seeing myself bald for the first time was confronting. It made me look like the typical ‘cancer patient’ for the first time – which is a stark thing to accept. 

People think hair is such a trivial thing. How do you think society perceives hair? Did you struggle to accept yourself once you lost all your hair?

I accepted hair loss for what it was during chemo. However, finishing treatment and starting recovery is where I began to struggle with the personal and social consequences of this change. Our femininity is definitely tied to our hair, but our society also favours people based on how conventionally attractive they are and a female with no hair, or even very short hair, simply does not fit that ‘mould’. As someone who grew up believing their self-worth was strongly tied to their physical appearance, this was painfully difficult to confront. Everyone has their small insecurities but being bald was the first time I had felt so deeply self-conscious. Being bald put me at war with body image. Only recently have I been able to let that deep resentment of myself shed a little bit. 

Was there anything you did specifically when you were bald?

I wore a lot of headscarves. It was so hard to find one that was chic, the perfect size, sustainable, affordable – I wasn’t about the wigs as they were itchy, uncomfortable and made me more self-conscious as I never thought they looked ‘real’ enough. I ended up designing my own line (@thisisforandy) to create the ones I wish I had!

How did you manage your hair when it started to grow back?

I have the famous ‘chemo curls’, but my best advice is to bobby pin and use gel like crazy to get it into a style. Also, have patience! With yourself, with your hair. Yes, it is so painfully slow and the transition between the hairstyles can make you feel unattractive, but it grows. I found my hair to be dryer, and more fragile. So, I took more care of it using gentler products. Space buns were my favourite hairstyle for a while, now it’s long enough for a small ponytail. 

What is something losing your hair because of cancer taught you? 

That hair is such an important aspect of identity – particularly feminine identity and that I should not feel shameful or guilty for mourning my hair loss. It’s been a year since chemotherapy. Pre-cancer I would say I saw the world pretty simply. I didn’t appreciate or understand the many nuances of the human experience because life was pretty straightforward. Good was good and bad was bad. But going through something like cancer revealed how intertwined these ‘opposites’ can be and the delicate relationships that exist between them. Growth through darkness. Beauty from strength. They do an intricate dance – we have power to choose their rhythm.

As of April 9, 2021 Maddie entered remission and has since celebrated her 21st birthday, cancer free.

June 08, 2021

One Woman On Her Relationship With Cancer And Hair Loss

Hair loss and cancer often go hand in hand. Cancer, in short, is ugly. It is uncomfortable and forces oneself to see beyond the physical, even though the physical is all one can see. 

The relationship women have with hair is complex. It isn’t trivial, as many are led to believe. Our identity, femininity and sense of self is tied to the strands of hair on our head. So, when cancer comes calling and the threat of losing it unwillingly becomes real, how does one deal with it? 

I sat down with Maddie King, who was 19 when she was diagnosed with Stage IV Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, to talk about cancer and hair loss.

Image: Maddie by Humanise Health

Talk to me about the emotion behind losing your hair due to something you can’t control. How did you come to shave it off?

When you live in and out of hospital and between medical appointments in ‘fight or flight mode’, the consideration of physical appearance kind of takes a back seat for the initial time being. That’s not to say I wasn’t upset; it just wasn’t top of mind. But when the time came… it was a lot. I went to the hairdressers to shave it off and I cried. It was very emotional.

Did shaving it off make it the cancer feel real? 

Seeing myself bald for the first time was confronting. It made me look like the typical ‘cancer patient’ for the first time – which is a stark thing to accept. 

People think hair is such a trivial thing. How do you think society perceives hair? Did you struggle to accept yourself once you lost all your hair?

I accepted hair loss for what it was during chemo. However, finishing treatment and starting recovery is where I began to struggle with the personal and social consequences of this change. Our femininity is definitely tied to our hair, but our society also favours people based on how conventionally attractive they are and a female with no hair, or even very short hair, simply does not fit that ‘mould’. As someone who grew up believing their self-worth was strongly tied to their physical appearance, this was painfully difficult to confront. Everyone has their small insecurities but being bald was the first time I had felt so deeply self-conscious. Being bald put me at war with body image. Only recently have I been able to let that deep resentment of myself shed a little bit. 

Was there anything you did specifically when you were bald?

I wore a lot of headscarves. It was so hard to find one that was chic, the perfect size, sustainable, affordable – I wasn’t about the wigs as they were itchy, uncomfortable and made me more self-conscious as I never thought they looked ‘real’ enough. I ended up designing my own line (@thisisforandy) to create the ones I wish I had!

How did you manage your hair when it started to grow back?

I have the famous ‘chemo curls’, but my best advice is to bobby pin and use gel like crazy to get it into a style. Also, have patience! With yourself, with your hair. Yes, it is so painfully slow and the transition between the hairstyles can make you feel unattractive, but it grows. I found my hair to be dryer, and more fragile. So, I took more care of it using gentler products. Space buns were my favourite hairstyle for a while, now it’s long enough for a small ponytail. 

What is something losing your hair because of cancer taught you? 

That hair is such an important aspect of identity – particularly feminine identity and that I should not feel shameful or guilty for mourning my hair loss. It’s been a year since chemotherapy. Pre-cancer I would say I saw the world pretty simply. I didn’t appreciate or understand the many nuances of the human experience because life was pretty straightforward. Good was good and bad was bad. But going through something like cancer revealed how intertwined these ‘opposites’ can be and the delicate relationships that exist between them. Growth through darkness. Beauty from strength. They do an intricate dance – we have power to choose their rhythm.

As of April 9, 2021 Maddie entered remission and has since celebrated her 21st birthday, cancer free.

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