Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Curse of Hair

Editor's Note: For many women the most traumatic part of cancer treatment is losing their hair. But the experience is not universal, not every treatment plan has this side effect.  Beth Gainer writes, that can be a mixed blessing.


Billy Crystal, in his popular Saturday Night Live skit "Fernando's Hideaway," made the following mantra famous: "It's better to look good than feel good." Like many viewers, I found this hilarious.

Then came breast cancer – and chemotherapy and radiation. I did not lose my hair during treatments, but I did lose a significant amount of weight.

I looked fabulous, but I was unbearably ill.

“It’s better to look good than feel good”?

Not so hilarious anymore.

At first, I felt lucky not to have lost my hair. But because I was young and looked good despite having cancer, people would trivialize my condition. Many would forget I was ill and were shocked when my cognitive skills were not up to par. I got labeled as being suddenly “stupid.”

Others were stunned when I described how terrible I felt. “But you look so good,” they would say to me, as if that could comfort me. Really shocking was that many women who knew I was fighting cancer were jealous of my flat tummy and my ability to lose weight so quickly.

I would tell them that I could hardly eat anything because I was so sick from cancer treatments, but who listens to a woman with a full head of hair?

Ironically, my hair became a curse, and I found myself wishing that I had gone bald after all – for if one looks ill, others realize that this cancer stuff is for real.

In the end, I don’t blame those who made insensitive remarks. We live in a society that perceives if one looks good, then he or she feels good.

This is why if I could go back in time, the first thing I would do is shave my head and eyebrows and, if possible, sport my baldness with no head covering. I never wanted pity, but I realize that unless one looks sick, it’s easier for people to bury their collective heads in the sand and reassure themselves that the sickness doesn’t exist.

Breast cancer really drove home an important point: it’s far better to feel good than look good.

Beth L. Gainer has had numerous publications, including an essay in the anthology Voices of Breast Cancer. Her popular Calling the Shots blog at offers information and advice on how to navigate the medical system. She is a contributing member of Medpedia and Navigating Cancer.

What do you think? Let us know in our comments section!


  1. Even though I lost my hair and hated it, I feel for you. I got it from the other end. People knew I was bald under those scarves and wigs, and I suppose they tried to dodge that bullet by asking when I'll be able to fit into my "skinny jeans" from having cancer. Ugh. I gained a lot of weight from my treatments, so no skinny jeans for me!

    I think some people are still uncomfortable around "sickness" when it gets close to them, but skinny jeans? Seriously. I guess I was not hip enough to have a "Chemo Chic" look like you!!!

    Here's to feeling good!


  2. Jennifer thank you for the comment!

    Nobody's path through this is easy.

  3. Beth -
    I can understand how you feel about this. It is impossible for people to know how we're feeling...I lost my hair, but people are always telling me how healthy I look with rosy red cheeks. I don't even bother anymore explaining that's a steriod side effect...and the complements on losing weight - no-one should have to lose weight in this fashion... but hat's off to you! My bald head is shining brightly your way!!

  4. This is such an interesting and refreshing perspective. And so very true about the assumption that if you look good then you must feel good. And even if you are feeling not bad, and having a better day, the whole cancer diagnosis changes your emotional and psychological outlook for ever.

    I think people have expectations about how you will look if you have cancer, and also when you are having treatment. To see us looking fairly normal, and smiling, laughing joking (often part of the coping strategy) reassures friends and colleagues that actually we are fine and feeling good.

    I hated losing my hair because of the instant association with cancer. I was convinced I would be one of the rare ones to keep my hair and resisted its disappearance as long as possible. I still think I look like Austin Powers' Dr Evil in the mirror!

    And the weight question! I have always been heavier than I should and am very short at 5'. Even with a good bit of weight loss, I still get comments that maybe I am looking good because the extra fat stops the chemo making me so ill!!! Making me look so ill perhaps - those awful post chemo groundhog days have to be lived through to know what they are like. You know the days when you wake up and think - oh no, another day like this again!!!

    It seems that no matter how the treatment affects us, people react from where they are and what they say is probably a reflection of their own fears and awkwardness?

    Gosh this has turned into a long comment - sorry for the rant. I am in the second day after my 7th chemo and can't sleep!! Now I am off to lost property to see if I can find my eyebrows and eyelashes which have suddenly decided after all this time to join the head hair! Please, please let those stubborn leg hairs go too.........

  5. FBG we love your comment and I am going to check out your blog.
    Keep in touch!