Skip to main content

Should a Chemo Patient Shave the Hair Off & If So, When? Thoughts One Year Later

A week or so ago marked another cancer-related anniversary for me. It’s been one year since I shaved my hair off, or I should say since hubby shaved it off for me and yes, as I mentioned in a previous post, we used the same trimmer we use on our springer.

I had been a “hair shaving hold-out.”

I’ve since learned most people shave their hair off before chemotherapy or during chemotherapy as soon as the hair begins falling out, which is usually after the second treatment. Most people say doing it at that time makes them feel more in control.

Not me. I waited until I was totally finished with chemotherapy.

What was I waiting for?

I’m not entirely sure. Mostly, I think I was in a state of defiance.

At a “Preparing for Chemotherapy” class (by the way, there is no class that can truly prepare you for chemotherapy) the nurse teaching it bluntly told me I would definitely lose all my hair and not just the hair on my head.

I didn’t appreciate her telling me that so matter-of-factly in front of the whole class and in my vulnerable state at the time, I found the remark to be highly insensitive. I definitely bristled and said to myself something like, well, we’ll just see about that! Of course, I knew she was right. Go figure…

Maybe my rebellious reaction was due to the fact I was feeling so out of control at the time and I decided this was at least something I could control. I would decide the time. I would decide the place.

This chemo-induced hair loss issue is a really big one, especially for women. I still get comments on my blog post about when to shave the hair off. I still get emails from women asking me for advice on the hair shaving dilemma. I always say pretty much the same thing; it’s a personal choice. You should do it when and if you choose. Just because most people shave it off early doesn’t mean you have to. Do it when you are ready, or don’t do it at all even. There are no rules here.

I stand by that advice.

Last year when I shaved off my hair, I sort of made a commitment to myself. (Can you sort of make a commitment??)  I told myself that in one year I would post a picture of myself bald on my blog. Not that anyone out there would care. No, this would be some major personal milestone or rite of passage for me, or so I thought.

Here it is one year later and I must somewhat reluctantly admit I’m not ready. I’m not quite there yet.

Instead I still feel a bit like the Peanuts character, Linus, holding onto his security blanket, except my security blanket is a baseball cap. I still rarely go out of the house without one plunked on my head. Now with winter weather arriving, I’ll get to change things up a bit and don some stocking-cap-type head cover. That’ll be nice.

What does this dependency on head-cover say about me I wonder?

Does it mean I’m too vain, too shallow, too scared, too private, too insecure, too weak, too cowardly or too embarrassed?

Or all of the above?

I really have no idea what it means.

Sometimes even the small steps one takes in this cancer gig seem huge.

I do know I have to allow myself to follow my own advice. I will stop wearing the baseball caps when I’m ready. I will post ‘that picture’ some day, when and if I’m ready.

I’ll know when the time is right.

And a little something to hold onto for security never hurts does it?

Have you ever shaved your head for any reason?

Do you have a “security blanket” of some sort?


32 thoughts to “Should a Chemo Patient Shave the Hair Off & If So, When? Thoughts One Year Later”

  1. Great post. Thanks for talking about what seems to be the most obvious sign of patientness.

    I didn’t shave mine, but had it cut to about half an inch by the wig dude. He said mine would fall out between 2 and 3 weeks after my first chemo, and it did. I had mine 2 weeks after.. And then I helped it fall out the rest of the way with packing tape… Like lint removal.

    I did post pics in my blog of my very short haircut (February) and my bald self (march). Now my hair is coming back and it’s gray (I’m not coloring it anymore), and curly(it was straight).

    I had a great wig, but hardly wore it, preferring hats.

    I think each of us has to find our comfort zone with this. We look for control where we can. It’s hard because you become conspicuous, but again, people try to ignore you while staring furtively. So the wig can be great because you can go beneath the radar.

    I stopped wearing hats when my hair was pretty skimpy. But again, it all depends on your own comfort zone. There’s no “should” or “ought” that refers to us all.

    1. Elaine, Thank you for sharing your thoughts. You’re right, everybody needs to find their own comfort zone. Even now after my hair is back, I’m finding that to be true. I’m still not entirely comfortable going out without something on my head. I never wore wigs much either, only when absolutely necessary. They were just too hot. Good for you for posting those pictures. I will check them out. Some day I may post mine too…

  2. My hairdresser came to my home and shaved my head for me. I chose to make it a party and invited friends, had champagne and generally tried to be upbeat about it. I never really had great hair so I was not that distressed. My hair has hardly come back at all.s.none on legs, arms or underams or those other places we have to trim. I feel sad that I never got the chemo curls everyone talks about…

    1. Holly, Wow, you have a really accomodating hair dresser. That was so nice of her to make a ‘house call’ like that. Good for you for going the party route. That would not have worked for me. My hair has never been all that great either, or so I used to think anyway. Now I would love to have my old hair back. Thanks for sharing, Holly.

  3. I had my husband help me with shaving ny head, too, when the fallout was imminent. Didn’t want to deal with finding hair everywhere. My plan was to skip the wig as I want(ed) the cancer to be temporary and never-again so why incur the expense? I didn’t want to hide my head as I had nothing to be ashamed about but by the same token, I didn’t welcome the knowing looks, especially the ones of pity. I didn’t like my cancer encounter being on display and yet I wanted to be brave and let my world see what cancer does. And that one can still carry on, despite the demeaning side effects. Oh well…Wisconsin winters require some kind of head gear if you want to avoid brain freeze so I was off the hook with my grandiose plan. I did post a couple pics sans hair on my FB page….turns out, I have nicely shaped head! And I made a darn good Hare Krishna for Halloween. I’m glad to have hair again, even though I’m wrestling with chemo curls these days.

    1. Mary, Thanks for your comments. So where in Wisconsin do you live? I live there too. I know what you mean about not wanting to hide the ugly side effects of cancer treatment. The world needs to see it. Then again, the looks and stares can be quite bothersome. So, I guess to each their own, right? I’m glad you have hair again, curls and all!

  4. Funny how even a haircut from long to short can be such an emotional thing for a woman, even if she doesn’t have cancer. I was watching America’s Next Top Model over the weekend and one of the models had to cut her hair really short for a photoshoot. She was in the bathroom balling and it seemed so dumb that she could be so distressed over her hair! I mean, it’s not like she had cancer! But at the same time, as someone who has also never had cancer, I can understand what she was going through. Our hair can be so much of our identity. I totally hide behind my own hair – it’s always the same style, in my comfort zone.

    I am very proud of you for posting that photo of your hair coming out last year. That seems more courageous than posting a shaved/bald photo.

    1. Lindsay, It is pretty crazy the way we feel about our hair isn’t it? The few times in my life I cut my hair short were pretty traumatic. I guess we know it will take a long time to grow back if it looks bad. Funny story about the model especially since I’m sure she looked fabulous with short hair too. Nice to know we all obsess a bit about our hair. Thanks for sharing. And thanks for saying that about the photo of me losing my hair. It was rather frightening to post. Remember you took the photo!

  5. As someone who has just finished her chemo (yay) I am a recent head shaver. I made the decision to get it buzzed as I have fine hair and it wouldn’t take long to look awful. I wear a wig just about all the time in public – my youngest is 7 and he has answered questions about me when I show up in a bandana. One kid in his class asked him why I was looking like a pirate to which he replied ‘she’s wearing a bandana cos she’s got no hair’. You can imagine the boy’s confusion the next day when I showed up in my wig!

    Now we are moving in to summer and it is getting too hot to wear the wig so the bandana is the next best thing. My wig is quite different from my real hair and I’ve had many comments about my new hairstyle to which I reply a wig. I still have patchy eyebrows and I don’t look like I’m undergoing treatment for cancer.

    It’s a journey that I am open about, but the baldness is a part of me that I have kept private – family only. I’m happy to have had the control of when to shave my head but that was also the most difficult day of the journey so far – harder even than losing my breast at the age of 42.

    Looking forward to having it back and I suspect from the little regrowth I have that it will be grey, but will I still have my curls? Time will tell, Catherine

    1. Catherine, Congrats on finishing up your chemo! Don’t you just love the honesty of kids? I bet the other little boy was a bit confused the next day when you showed up wearing a wig! I had two bandanas and found them to be a nice comfortable alternative too. Wigs can get so darn hot and scratchy can’t they? I kept my baldness private too, not even the whole family saw me completely bald. Maybe that’s why posting the picture was too hard yet. Interesting how you mention it was harder to lose the hair than a breast. I understand that statement. Hope your hair returns alright. Mine has come back very slowly and kind of strangely. Oh well… Thanks for sharing. Hope to see you back soon!

  6. I had mine cut short first, then when it started clogging the plughole, hubby shaved it off for me. Wore a few wigs or scarves depending on weather – wigs are nice for keeping the ears warm LOL.

    My hair has always been thin and was looking forward to it possibly growing back better and curly perhaps – no such luck – hair is same as before. Still, you can’t have everything 🙂

    1. Jayne, Thanks so much for commenting on the hair thing! Wigs are definitely a bit easier to wear in the cooler temps. My hair was always thin too and not all that great, but boy it was better than it is now that’s for sure. I kept hoping mine would come back better too, but… Like you said, you can’t have everything!

  7. Nancy,

    Excellent posting. The decision whether and/or when to shave one’s hair off sounds tormenting. As you know, I didn’t lose my hair with my chemo treatment.

    I think if I knew I’d lose my hair, I would shave it on my terms.

    My journals are my security blanket.

    Thank you for sharing a very personal matter in such an eloquent way.

    1. Beth, Yes, I do remember that you did not lose your hair from chemo. I also remember how you said in some ways that was harder because people thought since you looked fine you must have felt fine too, and you did not. That must have been so awful. Cancer is just terrible no matter how you experience it isn’t it? I guess I’m not surprised you say your journals are your security blanket. I relate! Thanks for commenting, Beth.

  8. Glad to hear of a fellow mule-headed shaving hold out (I really thought I was the only one!). I too waited until after chemo was over — when I could look forward to little sprouts springing forth — and wanted to start with a clean palette so I could monitor my progress. I had no desire to hasten the complete loss of my hair (I think I had a morbid curiosity to see what it would do on its own). I kept a zip lock bag with me at all times and would coax strands out a little at a time. It never came out in clumps, on my pillow, or in the shower, and I never did quite lose all of it (I ended up looking like Einstein). Thing was, those sad little remaining wisps were a comfort to me somehow. When I knew I could expect my new hair any day, it was not at all traumatizing to finally pinch my hubby’s razor at take off what little bits were left. So I agree that there is no “right” time to embrace the bald; you just need to do it (or not) when and if it feels right.

    1. Jean, Well, it’s so good to hear from another hold-out! I thought I was the only one too! I think I was a bit curious just to see what would really happen too. And I didn’t actually lose all of my hair either. I had quite a bit left at the back of the neck, which worked out well with my baseball caps. I always kind of wanted to go back and show my hair to that nurse just to prove her wrong, but of course I didn’t. And like you, that little bit of hair left was comforting somehow. I did want to shave it all off after chemo, though just so I could start over from scratch. Thanks so much for sharing about your experience, Jean. I appreciate it.

    2. Jean, Nancy… you too, “holding out”. I thought I was the only one in a world of “shave at the first fall-out”. I’ve laughed at the picture of peanuts… that’s me!!!!

      I’ve had long, big wave, below shoulder length hair for decades (mainly because I was happy with it just doing it’s thing – short hair takes more upkeep). I didn’t bother with it when I ahd it, so in a way it hasn’t been too traumatic, though I know I’ll love it so much when it returns.

      I agree with so much you both say. I’m strangely fond of my sad little wisps too now (cut short I hasten to add). And I’m curious to see if and when they go of their own accord or whether they’ll defiantly stay the course (as I’ve still half of my chemo to get through). I’m finding humour in it and humour where I can find it, even perverse humour, is helping me cope for the few moments it manifests (like now).

      I’ve just been debating whether to shave it before it begins returning as it’ll be all different lengths if I don’t. There’s a part of me wonders whether to see it’ll look more comical than it does now just for the entertainment of it!

      To comment on the “when”. It’s more the practical thing that’s decided me to be honest. I’d happily go about bringing people up short by being bald. But I cover up because it’s the people who only know me casually or who have drifted out of my life to be encountered only rarely now. I don’t want them labelling me ‘cancer girl’ or telling others they meet who also knew me. I don’t I suppose want to have to deal with their reactions should I meet them in future. I’ve sworn my few dearest friends to secrecy because of this desire. This all means I’m covering up anyway so it negates the need to shave. If it were summer, then perhaps it would be a different dilemma.

      I too have a wig and hate wearing the silly thing. It hurts my ears after a while as well as itches.

      I’m so grateful to have found there are others in the “hold-out” club. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

      1. Lynne, No you are certainly not alone! Welcome to the “hold-out” club! I’ve always thought longer hair was easier to manage too as I have some pretty severe colics… You may very well keep some of those wisps, I had a few that managed to hang on and it was kind of hard to shave them off when the time came since they had hung on to the bitter end. Ultimately, I did shave my head so things could start from scratch, but you certainly wouldn’t have to. Interesting how you’ve sworn friends to secrecy. Sometimes it’s just easier isn’t it? Thanks so much for sharing about your experience too, Lynne. Hope to “see” you back soon! Good luck finishing up chemo.

  9. I remember the day Mom was ready to shave her head. She marched into the kitchen and said “it’s time!”. “Time for what?” I thought. “Time to shave my head…” I had offered to shave my head as well if it would make her feel more comfortable. She hesitated for a minute, then laughed and said she would like to live vicariously through my long wavy locks. We (Mom, Dad and brother) shaved her head together as sort of a “next step through this whole damn thing” passage.

    You are correct about timing. No one should shave until they are ready. And please, please, please don’t describe yourself as too weak or too vain to post your picture. You are You and everything will come in due time.

    🙂 Tory

    1. Tory, Thanks for sharing that story about your mom. I guess she knew when the time was right for her! You made a nice gesture in offering to shave your head too. One of my kids shaved his head and that was nice. We took pictures together, maybe those would be easier to share. Thanks for commenting. You’re very kind.

    1. Renn, Thanks for reading and commenting and for the link too. It really is a very personal topic, but yet also one everyone really relates to, cancer or not. The hair is always such a big deal isn’t it?

  10. Nancy,

    Thanks again for posting about the whole cancer process, from start to…well, I guess it never really finishes, does it?! You write so beautifully and I relate to many of the things you say. I’m your WI gal….live in Madison. Dx was June 2010, 2 months after getting married (to husband #2). He’s been my rock though there’s so much that we still need to weather on our own. Last Herceptin was Nov 29th, woohoo! Hard to believe it’s 18 months later. Just needing my areola tat (that’s a whole ‘nother topic, tho, right?).


    1. Mary, Thank you so much for your kind words. I guess we are practically neighbors then! Our diagnosis dates were very close I guess. It’s terrible cancer came calling so soon after your marriage, although it’s not like there is a better time… I’m glad your husband has been so supportive. We are both very lucky in that regard aren’t we? Yes, woohoo on finishing that Herceptin; that’s great! It’s funny you mention the areola tat because I’m planning a post on my experience with that next week, if I dare to post it! ha. Thanks so much for commenting, Mary.

  11. Hey I am from Wisconsin (Madison) and should be losing my hair in about 10 days. Going to try the wig route but I don’t want it to go flying off in a blizzard. This is all crazy emotional.

    1. Ann, Well hello fellow Wisconsinite! Sorry to hear you will be losing your hair. That is a difficult thing to go through, even though as everyone says and knows it’s only hair. Good luck with the wig route. There were a few times I worried about the wind! Seriously though, they do fit pretty snuggly, part of the reason they are so uncomfortable. I found bandanas to be quite easy to wear and they didn’t seem to scream cancer too loudly. Winter is nice for stocking caps too. You are SO right, this is all crazy emotional! Good luck with things. Keep me posted on how you are doing. I care. Thanks for commenting. Hope you’ll be back.

  12. The day my hair started falling out I sat for an hour crying and literally pulling my hair out. Then I cut it all off with scissors, a truly horrible looking job. My daughter came over and shaved it off evenly. I have always had beautiful curly hair and losing my hair was a huge deal. When my hair started coming back in I continued to wear caps until it was about an inch long. It is baby fine and straight. Friends and family comment on how fast it is growing. Personally I don’t think 2 inches in 6 months is very fast. Every time I look in the mirror and see my very short hair I am reminded of cancer. I hate it.

    1. Kay, Oh my, I understand about the hair. Losing it must be even worse when you had such beautiful hair to begin with. Mine never was all that great, but… I’m only now beginning to go out without my caps and I still usually wear one. My hair is now kind of at the unmanageable stage. People tell me it’s really coming back now, but it’s been over a year and it still looks questionable to say the least. I know what you mean about looking in the mirror. I so “get that.” Thank you for commenting so candidly about your “hair experience.”

  13. Ive had long hair since 6th grade (I’m 44), so I’m glad I’m not alone in thinking this totally sucks. BUT for me, I know I feel more empowered and rebellious to take things into my own hands as much as possible …so already have a date with my sister to chop it to shoulder length prior to chemo next week. Im going to save the 2-3 inches to maybe use with some hats, to make bangs or something (we’ll see… might just like having the option). Then, when its shedding and getting bald spots, I’m buzzing it. My on oncologist warned me against shaving to the skin though…because a cut can get infected. I wonder if anyone else was told this. I also read that shampooing you scalp will keep hair follicles healthier. Ill do more research on both these. Boyfriend already planning his solidarity shave. The big picture, is that chemo terrifies me way more than being temp bald.

    1. Shera, Good for you for taking things into your own hands. It’s nice you can call on your sister to do a little trimming. I think it’s a great idea to save some hair to make bangs or whatever. I did order one of those “bang head band” products, but I never actually used it for some reason. I think your oncologist was right about avoiding shaving too close, so do be careful. Infection is nothing to fool with when on chemo. How nice your boyfriend is planning his solidarity shave. My son shaved his head at least three times while I was bald. Good luck as you begin chemo next week. Chemo does totally suck, but I think I imagined it to be even worse than it turned out to be. But that was just me. I always tend to think/plan for worst case scenario. I’ll be thinking of you. Keep us posted. And I’m sorry you are dealing with this crap, but you aren’t alone. Knowing that does help. My best.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: