Tracey Alston, 51, was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer on 9 May 2011. She had ‘the works – mastectomy, six sessions of chemotherapy, three weeks of radiotherapy and 17 sessions of the drug Herceptin’. Looking back, she confides that ‘while living was my priority initially, the biggest issue later on was losing my long, wavy auburn hair’.
Temporary hair loss is a very common side effect of chemotherapy, according to Rachel Rawson, clinical nurse specialist at Breast Cancer Care (BCC ), but in a small percentage like Tracey it does not grow back. ‘After the second round of chemo it came out in clumps and I thought, “Help – I look like my dad!” But I thought that after six months it would grow back.’ She bought a strawberry blonde wig and waited. ‘I kept setting deadlines – my hair will grow by this family wedding, by my 50th birthday. But my hopes were constantly dashed.’
After two and a half years Tracey looked into hair restoration systems. ‘I felt guilty about being vain, but it helped me to move on. Seeing what my daughter Beth called “my sproutings” in the mirror made me feel like a victim.’
Tracey chose the Intralace System by hair-loss expert Lucinda Ellery (lucindaellery.com), partly because she could see before and after photos on the website. That is why she was adamant that YOU readers should see what she looked like before as well as after the treatment. Today, her shoulder-length fringed bob is mounted on a mesh cap and integrated with Tracey’s own hair. ‘It’s not as simple as plonking on a wig: you have to be mindful when you wash your hair and learn blow-drying techniques. It was an investment [about £2,000] and it needs maintenance every six weeks. But it has given me my confidence back. I feel like myself again.’
Temporary hair loss can be traumatic for patients, too. ‘Looking in the mirror and seeing a different version of yourself is hard, but many women feel guilty that they are worrying about such changes to their self-image at a time when they have a life-threatening illness,’ says Rawson. Because BCC knows that such hidden side effects are not trivial, the charity has launched its #hiddeneffects campaign (breastcancercare.org.uk/hiddeneffects). BCC also offers a free HeadStrong hair loss advisory service to help prepare patients.
HOW TO GET BACK IN THE THICK OF IT
Thinning hair is a frequent woe for many women. In The Anti-Ageing Beauty Bible (Kyle Books, £15.99*) Jo Fairley and I have a section on the topic, which includes these tips:
- Have your blood checked to see if you are missing nutrients such as iron, particularly if your hair loss seems linked to the menopause.
- Shorter hair is easier to manage and looks younger and fresher.
- Camouflage hair loss at the hairline with a soft graduated fringe, side-swept if you prefer.
- Use the best-quality products you can afford. Trichologist Philip Kingsley developed No Scent No Colour shampoo and conditioner (free from colour, fragrance, sulphates and parabens) when his wife Joan was receiving cancer treatment. No Scent No Colour Jet Set, £22 for a 75ml Shampoo, Conditioner and Elasticizer, from philipkingsley.co.uk.
- Many women have benefited from using Phylia de M haircare, which was developed with an oncologist/ herbalist; 3 Step Kit, £103.
- Never overuse heated hair appliances, eg, dryers or straighteners, which can damage and weaken hair. Towel-dry short hair till damp then lift with a small brush or your fingers. Pop in medium soft rollers around the top. Let hair dry, remove rollers and finger-comb or brush smooth.