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Should a Chemo Patient Shave the Hair Off and If So, When?

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Should a chemo patient shave the hair off and if so, when?

I hope the photo of me below with my disappearing hair doesn’t scare anyone away. It was actually taken a few weeks ago when I had MORE hair.

Before beginning chemo, Dear Hubby and I signed up for a required chemo class at the hospital where I would be receiving it. We already knew quite a bit about chemo since my mother had had it a couple years earlier, but when you are going to be having it yourself, suddenly you can never know too much about it.

At the class, we received a packet full of information, watched a video and listened to a chemo nurse talk a bit about what to expect.

Surprisingly, to me at least, during class that chemo nurse looked at me and said, “Nancy with the drugs you will be receiving you will definitely be losing your hair.”

Should you shave your hair off and if so, when?

I know she meant well and was only trying to prepare me, but that comment made in front of the entire group was unexpected and I felt unnecessary. I mean, is there really anyone on the planet who doesn’t understand that chemo usually (though not always, so don’t assume) equals hair loss?

“Yes, I am totally aware of that,” I managed to answer as if it would be no big deal to lose my hair. But, I kinda wanted to slap her. 

That wouldn’t have been very smart though as I knew she might very well soon be MY chemo nurse.

Anyway, here I am post chemo session 7, and I still have some hair on my head. Granted, it’s not much, but there’s still some there.

If  you saw the Leonardo D’Caprio movie Shutter Island, I look like the creepy crazy woman with thin hair standing in the flower garden at the beginning of the movie when he arrives on the island. If you saw the movie and have had chemo, you know exactly who I’m talking about.

I think there’s a message in there somewhere that if you have thin hair you are scary looking, and I don’t think I like that message very much, but that’s a topic for another time.

It seems most chemo patients shave their heads as soon as hair loss begins or even before. It makes them feel more in control they say. Not me.

I’ve hung onto my hair as long as possible. I lamented when it began to fall out in clumps, and I still carefully pluck strands from the back of my clothes as if saying goodbye to old friends.

Don’t get me wrong, I have adjusted to having almost no hair surprisingly well. (Not like I had choice though). I even walk around the house without wearing anything on my head.

Dear Hubby just sorta laughs and says, “Oh, I got used to that a long time ago.” (Even though we both know fully well it’s no laughing matter and neither of us has really gotten used to it.)

And my kids don’t care. Neither do the dogs. In fact, the dogs get more nervous, eyeing me suspiciously for a few moments, whenever I put a wig on. They don’t miss a thing; they totally know it’s fake hair and that I look different. My dogs prefer my “natural” look.

Does not shaving my hair off like most chemo patients do make me weak, vain or just plain weird?

Am I unable to face reality?

Or did my defiant rebellious side kick in that day at chemo class?

I don’t know or care.

I do know when I’m finished with chemo, (and I fully realize unlike me, those with mbc will never be finished) I will shave off any remaining hair on my head so I can start over from scratch. Otherwise, I’ll end up with some freakish mish-mash of length, color and texture even I am not willing to deal with.

I guess the point of all this rambling, is that you can and should do what you want about shaving your head. Shave it all off early or let it fall out slowly.

So, should a chemo patient shave the hair off and if so, when?

You decide. It’s your hair, it’s your cancer and it’s your decision.

Update:  Other posts about chemo you might want to read:

When Chemo Day Arrives

What Should You Take to Chemo?

What Is Chemo-Induced Flushing?

How to Shop for a Wig

If you have had chemo, did you shave your head as soon as hair loss began? (or if you know someone who has had chemo, what did they do?)

Note: More information about chemotherapy is available in my book, Getting past the fear: A guide to help you mentally prepare for chemotherapy. For all your purchasing options, click on the book image below.

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Diane

Sunday 25th of July 2021

I appreciate all that you write about cancer! I dreaded losing my hair as it was one thing I liked about myself. I paid for polar cap therapy which didn't work completely probably because my hair was so thick and curly. My brother lovingly would re-ice my head with the required dry ice. What it did do, was keep a small patch in the front and another in the back. With a hat I didn't look bald. I wore wigs of all colors and lengths. They were so hot and painful, but not as painful as seeing myself or others seeing me without hair. I wore them sometimes even when I didn't leave the house. I avoided mirrors and kepts the blinds drawn.It was much harder to lose my hair than my breasts. One can easily hide breasts. I would never do chemo again. I felt power in choosing not to shave my head. I applaud the women who do, And those who don't! It came back for which I'm forever grateful.

Nancy

Tuesday 27th of July 2021

Diane, I completely understand about how hard hair loss is. And yeah, the wigs are pretty darn uncomfortable to wear for very long. Glad to hear your hair came back. Mine came back so-so at best. I hope you're doing well now. Thank you for sharing about your experience with hair loss.

Nuria

Friday 30th of October 2020

I am going through chemo right now have only had one treatment out of 6 every 3 weeks. My hair has always been one of my best features. I was fortunate to have thick hair and lots of it with lots of natural volume. At hair salons I am praised and paraded around. I have had long hair since I was 22 ( I am48 now) and i have loved it. Once I learned I would be losing my hair, I wanted to come to terms with it. Friends and family both told me I might not since I had so much and it was so thick. I sensed the prospect of hair loss was more uncomfortable for them than for me. A few days after my chemo treatment a sweet guy friend of mine came over and buzzed my hair off. I still had hair but it was very short. For me the prospect of seeing my beautiful hair come out in clumps was too emotionally distressful. I had two weeks to get used to my short look if you will. Now it is not so much falling out but I can pull it without resistance or effort. My scalp in painful and it itches . tomorrow I will be shaving it off and I feel empowered by it. I like it better than the bald spots on my head I have now. it will also feel better when laying my head on my pillow. I have always said it is just hair and it will grow back... when getting a haircut that I did not love. I keep trying to say that to myself now. I am not happy I had to loose my hair but it is just hair and it will grow back. My desire to live is stronger than my desire to keep my hair. I will try to embrace my bald head as much as I can. It does help that I have a very supportive group of friends and one of them shaved her head in solidarity so I would not go through this alone. I do agree with the original point though we must do what feels right for ourselves without letting others dictate what that should be. I felt pressured from others to keep my hair and see what happens and shaving it felt like more control. it was the right decision for me. For others it may be to wait till they are ready whenever that may be.

Nancy

Sunday 1st of November 2020

Nuria, I'm sorry you are going through hair loss as a direct result of chemo and cancer. It's hard. I'm glad you've decided to do what feels right for you regarding shaving it off. I hope that went okay and wasn't too traumatic. Hoping your treatment goes as smoothly as possible. Thank you for sharing about your experience. It'll be helpful for others to read your words.

Sheri

Wednesday 8th of July 2020

Thank you for your post on shaving your head. You captured the point so well that there's no right or wrong, strong or weak, way to treat hair loss. I had chemo 17 years ago and again in 2019. The first time I held on to my hair to the bitter end, but the second time I shaved it preemptively. The first decision led to the second, but both were good because they were about controlling a small part of the uncontrollable. If interested in reading a post on the second time please go to: https://lifeafterwhy.com/blog and click "Shave Angel" (Jan. 20, 2020). Thank you for writing.

Nancy

Monday 13th of July 2020

Sheri, Thank you for sharing about your experiences with this. Hope you're doing alright.

Jennifer White

Friday 5th of June 2020

Nancy, I just stumbled across your blog and I was searching for cancer related effects...I was diagnosed with Stage 4 Metastatic Breast Cancer in March of 2020, at the age of 42. I have an incredibly loving husband (I call him my BMEM or Best Man Ever Made), 3 beautiful children, and 3 awesome bonus children. I, too, had hoped that I could avoid chemo when I was first diagnosed,but I quickly learned that was not possible with the aggressive cancer I have. I've also had several days of radiation on my back and my hip. I just completed today my third round of chemo and cannot tell you how incredibly thankful I am thank each round so far has met me with minimal side effects - no fatigue (which I have NO time for as a working mother of 6), very minimal nausea (I always take my nausea pills before my treatments), and all around feel pretty good. BUT....the hair loss. It was pretty devastating for me. I felt superficial when worrying about it as bringing it up before it started happening (it start falling out pretty quickly on week 3 after the first treatment). When I had the chemo class, i had to hold back tears when she talked about that. I had long, blonde hair and my husband always complimented it. I thought I was being foolish, and I'm sure my family did too, when I talked about how it truly been the worst part of chemo, so far. I always heard the "but it will grow back" or "it's only hair". None of that helped me! My biggest concerns were my kids would worry at seeing me change physically, that everyone around me would perceive me as being "sick", weak, helpless, or gross. I worried my husband would no longer be attracted to me, which ate me up inside. That I would lose my femininity. And this all made me sick to my stomach because I have always had confidence and didn't really care what people thought. Well, surprise, surprise!!! My family loves my bald head. I did by a nice, high quality wig because of the work I do, I wanted it to be as close to my natural hair as possible. My BMEM tells me all the time how sexy he finds me, with or without the wig, but that my shaved head is "hot". I still am insecure going outside without my wig, but don't hesitate around the house. I also was very hesitant to shave my head when it started falling out. I held on for about another month and half before my husband convinced me to just shave it. I wanted to do it by myself because I was SO embarrassed by the whole thing. He wanted to do it with me. He told me he didn't want me shutting him out of this and that he loved me always and wanted to experience this with me and that it would bring is closer. So, I thought about it and we did it that night. I cried part of the time, but he helped me shave the back. He kissed my bald head and held me. He was absolutely right. And I felt better and my wig fit better. It was liberating! Since then, and that was about 3 weeks ago, I have shaved it all the way to the scalp. He also have a his head, so he gives me pointers on it. LOL My point is...hair is a big deal for a woman. Nancy is right!! Don't let anyone shame you, one way or another. Do whatever you want. And also, I had to let my wall down and step away from my pride and not shut out my husband. He wanted to be there for me because that's the only thing he feels like he can do as we're going through this together. Thank you to Nancy, and all who commented. I read through them all and they helped me gain even more perspective. May you all continue to fight your battle successfully!. Much love. ❤️

Nancy

Wednesday 10th of June 2020

Jennifer, I am sorry to hear about your stage 4 diagnosis. As for the hair loss, I so agree with you. It is a big deal. Still, we manage to adjust because what choice do we have, right? I'm glad you have such a wonderful, supportive partner and your advice to not shut a partner out is really important. Thank you for sharing about your experience. I'm glad to hear this post and all the comments helped you gain more perspective. Hope you're doing well. My best to you.

Jennifer White

Friday 5th of June 2020

Also, excuse any errors...I couldn't find a way to edit and that is a huge pet peeve of mine! LOL

Ann-Margaret Day-Osborne

Friday 29th of May 2020

Hi Nancy, Wondering about hairgrowth during chemo. When you shaved your hair off, did it grow back during chemo like a sandpaper feel or did chemo stunt growth for a time?

Nancy

Monday 1st of June 2020

Ann-Margaret, I didn't shave my hair off until I was finished with chemo, so I can't answer your question. I did lose most of it, but not all. I don't think I experienced any hair regrowth during chemo.