What It’s Like to Lose Your Hair

Spoiler: The anticipation is worse than the event itself.

Let’s start at the beginning: This picture was an above average hair day when I still had hair.

I’ve never been motivated nor skilled at styling my hair. Pictures of me dating back 25 years will show straight blond hair in various lengths from chin to shoulder.

I had a look.

Not saying it was a particularly good look, it was just the least-common-denominator style that got me through.

In retrospect, I should have mixed it up a lot more when I had the chance.

I had an elaborate plan after my first chemotherapy treatment. I would go to my long-time stylist and have her cut my hair into a chic short cut, then return a second time for an extremely close crop once the hair loss started in earnest. She was also going to help me find and style a wig.

Sidenote: Did you know a wig may be covered by insurance? Yes, you can obtain a prescription for a head prosthesis. Given that wigs range wildly in cost – ones with real hair can be over a thousand dollars – a prescription would come in handy.

While chemotherapy protocols vary, the side effects of mine (which I’d read, oh, at least a million times) indicated that hair loss would occur 12-14 days after the first dose.

And then, with one global pandemic, my careful plans fell apart.

Eight days after my first treatment, I started to notice some hair loss at my temples.

I decided to take step one and cut my hair myself.

I sectioned my hair into ponytails for easier cutting and put on lipstick for courage.

The end result was not perfect. This is likely my first and last foray into home barbering.

^^^ I measured, and this was also nearly three years of estimated growth.

This is what it mostly looked like during the week I had that cut.

This picture is also the last day I had hair.

Here’s the timeline:

  • Eight days after chemo: Self-Administered short cut
  • Twelve days after chemo: Hair loss started in earnest. Tugging at a small clump of hair was enough to pull some, but not all, out.
  • Also day twelve: I ordered a wig online. This was neither the planned nor recommended procedure, but the Coronavirus pandemic meant that my stylist’s advice and the local wig stores were not available. Furthermore, I did not get to use my head prosthesis prescription and had to pay out of pocket (~$300).
  • Days 13-17 after chemo: I joked that I was like a dandelion in the wind. The slightest brush or pull would result in a large clump of hair coming out. Zoom calls with patients, staff, friends and everyone else were starting in earnest and I was really concerned because my wig had not arrived, and I was quickly running out of options. I stopped brushing and washing my hair. To do so would have resulted in tremendous loss at once.
  • Evening, Day 17: I couldn’t go on like this any longer, wig or not. My dirty short hair was becoming matted and the loss just escalated. When the hair came out, the roots looked totally desiccated, like hair that had been burned. I didn’t torture myself with this activity, but I wager that I could have pulled out half or more of what was on my head with little effort. I asked my husband to use his old sideburn trimming clippers to shave my head.

When the time finally came to get my head shaved, it was more functional and less emotional than I thought it would be. I’d already pre-mourned my hair loss so much in the previous weeks and months that the act felt like a relief. Finally.

A few surprising pieces of information emerged: the first was that while my natural hair color – which I have not seen in a long, long time – was a boring dishwater blond, it was much less gray than I thought it would be. The second is that a bristly head is extremely itchy.

Fortuitously, my wig arrived the evening that I shaved my head. This felt like Divine intervention, the universe giving me a tiny bit back.

My daughter told me that my wig looked like American Girl Doll hair. She is 100% correct.

I don’t enjoy wearing my wig. Most of the time it rests in my closet on an improvised stand, a Nambe vase that I got as a wedding gift.

You can also see in the above picture that I have sorted out piles and piles of scarves to wear on my head. I have watched a lot of YouTube videos on how to style a head scarf.

As of this writing, I’ve been (mostly) bald for about two weeks. I also completed my second chemotherapy session (#2 of 4) during this interval, so in theory, I am halfway done with active treatment.

Internally, I generally feel the same. While I have had some side effects to the chemo, I am grateful that overall I have been doing very well.

Yet.

There are moments where I catch my reflection and gasp. Who is this?

My eyebrows and eyelashes are also getting into the Falling Out game, which just adds to the overall look.

I feel like a nude mouse:

Albeit one with lipstick.

To The Next Generation of Fancy Lady Doctors

I earned the nickname “Fancy Lady Doctor” in medical school, even before getting the official MD letters behind my name in 2001.

Despite being tongue-in-cheek at its core, the concept of the Fancy Lady Doctor – or FLD – resonated with my classmates.

Several of them started developing their own mini-groups of FLDs in residency programs across the country, but nowhere did it take off like in my own OBGYN residency program at the University of Colorado.

Friends, they still give out a “Fancy Lady Doctor” award at the annual end of the year residency banquet. I die with pride!

When I attended medical school in the late 1990s, there were a few attending physicians who qualified as FLDs, but not many. Ditto residency.

Don’t get me wrong, there were countless wonderful, smart and kind women who educated me, but not many were wearing heels in the OR at 3 A.M.

I have done this.

The culture of medicine has changed since then, too. More women than ever are entering medicine, and now that we are more than half of medical students – and emerging physicians – we can own the space in a way that our foresisters could not. I recognize the debt.

Back to the FLD scarcity in my training: This all changed when I was a third year resident and attended the 2003 annual meeting of the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, known as ASRM.

In the fertility world, the ASRM meeting is a big deal. Nearly 10,000 fertility professionals – doctors, nurses, embryologists, psychologists, scientists and more – meet to learn about cutting edge research and new techniques, tools or devices. There are opportunities to connect with old friends and colleagues, as well as industry leaders.

And there are parties.

Some of this has changed since my inaugural ASRM (it’s toned down a lot), but back then, I was blown away.

Everywhere I turned there was someone with near rock-star status in our field, walking around like a mere mortal. There were parties every night with multiple live bands, cocktails and embarrassingly extravagant displays of sushi. One party had enough jumbo shrimp and lobster tails to fill a bathtub.

And there were many, many FLDs.

Not only were these women smart, well-spoken and professionally accomplished, they looked great. They wore suits or dresses that fit perfectly. They had designer – real designer – shoes and bags. No knock-offs here. They had rings with diamonds large enough to choke a horse.

I had found my tribe.

Fast forward to now: Last week marked the 75th ASRM meeting in Philadelphia, PA. I went.

One day I wore these:

Holy Grail: Fabulous and comfortable.

And I was delighted to connect with a whole new generation of FLDs in my field.

While it’s a surprising position to discover I’ve aged enough that a whole generation has come up behind me – How did I get here? – I really, really like these women.

It makes me happy for the future of our speciality and for women physicians in general.

And, so, a final message to my younger FLD colleagues: Keep it going.

Be smart.

Be fabulous.

Be kind.

Be amazing physicians.

And remember: diamonds are always the perfect accessory.

Especially with scrubs.