Losing hair, gaining freedom


Following breast cancer and chemotherapy, Debbie Ormewas more upset about losing her hair than losing a breast, but then the unexpected happened – she began to feel liberated

BRITISH REALITY TV star Jade Goody’s upset over her bald head following cancer treatment featured in many papers at the weekend. As a breast cancer survivor who also lost my hair through chemotherapy, I can fully empathise. Losing my hair upset me more than losing my breast. But it has, ironically, left me feeling liberated.

During my 40-plus years I’ve had two hairstyles. The pixie-like “Sheena Easton circa 1982” style and the “growing” hairstyle (which invariably reverted back to the aforementioned Easton). There was nothing really wrong with my hair, apart from the fact that it had a natural wave. But I like straight hair. So over the years I’ve either kept it so short it couldn’t wave, or endured the scrunched, tousled look.

Three years ago, during a growing phase, a friend produced a set of hair straighteners and the transformation was amazing. Instead of a wavy mane that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Oscar Wilde, I had straight, silky-looking hair. Everyone told me I suited straight hair so much more.

This style came at a price, however. In keeping with half the female population, I couldn’t straighten it myself. So I spent the next two years visiting the salon twice a week for a blow-dry. Despite the time commitment, which I couldn’t really afford, and the financial cost, which I definitely couldn’t, I felt it was worthwhile on account of the increased confidence it gave me. It “completed” outfits, I was told. It “finished” me, I was told. (What it also did was to become wavy if it so much as sniffed dampness in the air. A short burst of rain could transform me from sleek and elegant to big and frizzy quicker than I could say “GHD”.)

IN APRIL LAST year I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was very lucky in that it had not spread and the cancer was caught very early. But chemotherapy was put on the table as a hopefully preventative measure for the future. The list of side-effects – tiredness, sickness, depleted immune system – weren’t particularly attractive. But the word “alopecia” almost made me take a step back.

While my mastectomy hadn’t really upset me, the loss of my hair was a different matter. After my diagnosis, when I looked down at my cleavage I saw something that shouldn’t be there, that if it wasn’t cut off was going to kill me, and I shed no tears at its loss. While I had been able to cover up my cancer and the loss of my breast in public with a prosthesis and stuffing, there was no way I could disguise the fact that I was going to be bald with no eyebrows or eyelashes. This was to be a public affirmation of what had happened, and I resented it. On top of what had happened to me, I felt angry that my femininity and appearance were now to be destroyed.

Before I had lost even a single strand of hair, I went to the wig centre. The Posh Spice version was too short, trendy and sharp-looking, while the Krystle Carrington was so wrong. I began to despair and, although the very nice Wig Lady kept reassuring me that we’d find the right style for me, I had my doubts as I gazed into the mirror and saw a silver-bobbed Penelope Pitstop.

“What do you think?” asked the Wig Lady.

“I think I’d like to be somewhere else, thank you. I’d like to be back to April 6th, when I hadn’t found the lump, when my life was normal, when I wasn’t pumped full of poison and when I didn’t have to make appointments to sit in this chair trying on bloody wigs to cover up the fact that I’m going to be bloody bald,” I thought.

“It’s not bad,” I said, looking at something that wasn’t too far away from my own professionally straightened tresses. “Not bad at all. But it’s not quite the right shade.”

“Oh don’t worry about that. Here’s Cody,” said Wig Lady as she handed me a wig that looked as if my own hair had slid off my head and onto my lap. Oh joy.

The following week I woke one morning to find some hair on the pillow. I had shed few tears since my diagnosis, but the sight of my hair coming out opened the floodgates to grief.

Cody was to be my constant companion for the next five months. I let everyone try her on to create a sense of fun about her, mainly to ensure that my five-year-old was not intimidated by mummy being bald. I shouldn’t have worried, however, as the subsequent loss of the rest of my hair, eyebrows and eyelashes gave me something of a Teletubbies look.

HORRENDOUS THOUGH the chemotherapy and subsequent radiotherapy were, the next few months were to bring me to a strange realisation. I was no longer a prisoner to the twice-weekly hair appointments. I no longer had to avoid the rain at all costs for fear of the dreaded frizz. I loved the fact that Cody could be removed in an instant and, if she got wet, I could simply throw her onto the nearest radiator to dry (although I don’t think this is recommended practice).

During the five months I wore Cody, I began to see myself in a different, more liberal light. While I didn’t like looking at myself in the mirror at all – the mirror brings you back constantly to the realisation that you’ve had cancer – as my hair began to grow back, my face seemed to take on a different shape. Laid bare, I was forced to look at myself and my life in a different light. As soon as my hair reached a certain length (about three or four centimetres) Cody and I parted company for the last time.

While initially a little dubious about how people would react to what I called my KD Lang look, this doubt was quickly dispelled. People began to tell me I looked better with the shorter hair, and that I should have done away with the wig a long time ago.

Life post-cancer has changed considerably. I’m grateful for every day now and I’ve simplified my life considerably, both in terms of possessions and activities. The new crew-cut me is, I feel, a public indication of how much freer I feel, physically and mentally. There are no more bad hair days and every day is good – hair or not.

I hope Jade Goody gets the opportunity to appreciate this feeling too.



Getting a wig: a relatively pain-free process

As with most cancer-related services, the process of getting a wig is designed to be as simple and as painless as possible. Usually the cancer centre linked to the hospital will point you in the right direction, and there are an increasing number of companies that specifically provide wigs for those who have been undergoing chemotherapy.

There’s a wig to suit everyone. Whether you’re looking for something akin to your own hair or something completely different, you’re sure to find something.

The fitting is a one-on-one session with the wig stylist. The stylist will then order the chosen wig, which normally takes about a week. Like I did, many people will buy their wig before their own hair has fallen out.

In terms of cost, wigs can run from those that are free (but perhaps not the best quality) to those that cost a little more. My wig cost £200, but a grant of £100 was available and I didn’t mind paying the rest for something that was so close to my own hair.

Other people go for the cheaper option of a headscarf (or nothing at all), but I found the scarf more obvious and less comfortable.

The importance of early diagnosis

My cancer experience all happened in a short period of time. I found a lump in my breast on April 7th last year and was in the GP’s surgery an hour later. I was then diagnosed on April 16th and had a mastectomy on April 28th.

Early diagnosis is vital to make sure that the cancer is removed before it spreads, so it is vital to get any lump, however small, checked out as soon as possible.

I’m constantly amazed at the number of women who say “Oh I wouldn’t go to the doctor – I’d rather not know”. Until April,

I had never known anyone with cancer. Since then I’ve lost two friends to the disease. Cancer is becoming more prevalent in our society, but the good news is that survival rates are also increasing.