After a couple of requests (and when I say ‘requests’, I mean people idly wondering if I would write another blog post again this year, which I took as immediate demands for yet more of my invaluable pearls of wisdom), I decided to write about something that has been extremely pertinent to me over the last 6 months – beauty, hair and general appearance.
When you are having chemo, there is a prevailing feeling that your body is not your own. People come and stick needles in you and insert cannulas and weigh you every week, and talk about you like you’re not there and it’s a generally fairly invasive experience. Therefore, I truly believe that looking good makes a huge difference to your state of mental health and outlook on life. Here, I will go through some of my advice for someone starting out this journey (bleaugh, hate that word, most commonly used by X-Factor judges but it seemed appropriate here).
Ok, this is the main one, and the one that everyone will surreptitiously check out when they see you, because mainstream media has us all believe that people who have chemo are weakly lying in their beds, balder than a billiard balls, and in some cases, this is the truth. BUT NOT ALL. Some chemo will make you lose all your hair, some won’t, it’s very dependent on the person and the chemo.
I was told by my specialist, Cancer Research, all the nurses and Google that ABVD chemo would definitely make me lose all my hair, including my eyebrows and eyelashes. This is a traumatic thing to hear, I had a panic attack, and sobbed, between choking breaths that I would ‘look EXACTLY like an egg’. However, I have just had the last of 12 sessions yesterday and, despite thinning dramatically, my hair is still hanging on. I don’t want to speak too soon, it could all go after this final treatment, but I have had 6 months with it, and for that I’m incredibly grateful. So the point being, you may not lose all your hair.
I experienced a lot of thinning, which was upsetting – great clumps of hair coming out in the brush and the shower is unpleasant. However, I found that with a simple tied headscarf, I could pin my hair to cover the bald bits and looked quite normal to everyone else, and even a little bit like I was making a retro fashion statement. So I would recommend spending some time looking up ‘how to tie vintage headscarves and turbans’ on youtube and pinterest, and go from there. I also have a little velvet skull cap, which is very twenties. I don’t love the longer scarves tied behind the head and down the back, because I feel they are a little bit ‘cancer-y’, but my friend who’s going through a similar experience assure me that waiters find her tables in restaurants faster, so that’s a bonus. Here I am, wearing a couple of turban-style headscarves, one on Brighton beach and one holding a lamb who wishes he could wear one too, were he not destined for a more mint-sauce-based future.
I did also get a wig, custom-dyed from Etsy, but have yet to wear it as I find it quite hot and uncomfortable. If the wig route is for you, then go for it – there are tons of companies who will provide a discreet, professional service, and they are all listed on the Cancer Research website. I wend to Trendco in Notting Hill for a fitting, and they were lovely, discreet and sensitive.
In addition to buying a wig, Toni & Guy run a charity called Strength Through Style, where for the price of a blowdry, one of their trained wig-specialists will cut and style your wig, and use lots of tricks to make it look more natural, like removing the height and volume from the top. Definitely worth a visit if you want a more natural look – it’s offered in most salons but you do need to make an appointment.
Everyone, bar everyone, will tell you to shave your head. In some ways, this can be a good way of regaining control, but I would hold off until you know it’s definitely all going to go.
I would, however, recommend having it cut short to start off with. I went to the amazing Rita at Pimps & Pinups in Shoreditch, my usual hairdresser, and explained the situation, and she gave me an amazing short style with an undercut, so there was less hair to lose. It was absolutely terrifying going there, but I listened to Rebel Rebel on repeat and told myself that David Bowie, a man who rocked an orange mullet, wouldn’t be scared of a measly haircut. Find yourself an excellent hairdresser – not only did Rita do a great job on my hair, she was also sensitive and sympathetic, but not shocked, and turned what could have been a traumatic experience into a great one, so I will be returning to her for my future haircuts until the end of time. Here I am with my new hair:
A word to friends of people going through chemo, the most annoying four words you can use are ‘it will grow back.’ Like, yes, Doris, hopefully it will, but this doesn’t help the person staring down the barrel of months of coot-like existence. In this situation, what one should do is reach over and quickly shave off one of Doris’s eyebrow and then say, ‘but it will grow back, Doris!’ and see how she feels about that then.
A second word to friends of a chemo patient – offering to shave your hair in solidarity is AMAZING. I have one friend who was basically famous for his long curly locks, who shaved them off entirely and raised £2,000 for lymphona research and I have another one who cut 6 inches off her hair and donated them to the Little Princess Trust – a gesture so generous and thoughtful, it nearly made me cry. So if you can brave doing one of those things, do it – it’s a friendship gesture that will never be forgotten.
Moving onto eyebrows, mine did thin a significant amount. However, this is much easier to sort out than hair. I had them tattooed on prior to the start of my treatment, and now, if there is any thinning, you simply see the tattooed line, which looks like hairs, and voila, my dear – you can rival Cara Delevigne. You can also get, as I did, a lashline on your top lid, which creates darkness if you lose your eyelashes. A note about this process:
- Do not, do not DO NOT scrimp on this. My eyebrows cost me £400, which I was happy to pay because the artist was top class, well-respected and counts Victoria Beckham amongst her clients. She is called Jemma Upton, and she has fab, swishy offices in Harley Street. Do NOT get a deal off Groupon and end up with a 16 year old trainee from Scunthorpe holding a tattoo needle near your eyes and you coming out looking like Frida Kahlo meets the cast of TOWIE 2006. This will NOT improve your mood.
- It does hurt. I swanned in there, tattooed from rib to sternum to backbone, expecting it to be a piece of cake. 10 minutes in, I was practically begging for mercy (but in a British ‘when does the anaesthetic cream kick in’ sort of way). But worth it when you want to raise an eyebrow knowingly at someone and you know you’re playing with the full deck, as it were.
I also used eyebrow pencils to fill in any missing gaps – we currently live in an era of eyebrow obsession so there’s no shortage of products to choose from. If you’re not sure, read reviews on makeupalley.com or go into a department store and have a wander round their make up stands – the ladies there will be able to advise.
I started off with a Charlotte Tilbury one, which I promptly lost and so started using Wunderbrow, which is also excellent. In fact, occasionally I get carried away and give myself eyebrows so heavy that when my boyfriend sees me, he gasps, and I have to ask if it’s the eyebrows and he says, ‘oh, THAT’S what it is’ and I have to go back to the mirror and de-caterpillar myself, so I don’t look like Ming the Merciless. So, have no fear, excellent eyebrows and hairstyles are easily attainable with just a bit of research.
Next time: Beauty and skincare.