Editor’s Note: I wanted to do a story about cancer survivors and what it felt like losing your hair, your eyebrows and eyelashes and everything else that makes up your outward beauty as a woman. I immediately called Lara MacGregor, founder of Hope Scarves and a cancer survivor. Lara was 8 months pregnant when she discovered her breast cancer and started immediate treatment. As soon as I finished interviewing Lara, I got into my car and cried. Then later that night, when she sent me pictures when she bald and pregnant, I cried again. My girls cried. My husband cried. I think we cried for all survivors that night, because knowing what they went through made the emotions that much more raw. Thank you, Lara, for letting us share your story here today.
We all know people that have cancer. Maybe you have even lost someone close to you from cancer. I have. I have had multiple friends that have had cancer. My three aunts had breast cancer, one dying from it last year. My grandmother died of cancer, as well, at the tender age of 51. So, let’s just say I’m full up.
I had a lot of questions for Lara, questions that I have always kept inside, that I have been too embarrassed or nervous to ask. They were hard to ask and really hard for her to answer, probably because they brought her back to a place of complete vulnerability. I had interviewed her before when she was a FACES of Louisville, but this interview was much more intense, and I appreciate her complete honesty.
Here are my questions and her paraphrased answers:
When do cancer patients lose their hair? Do they have to shave their heads?
Lara says that while each patient’s reaction to treatment is different, usually you lose your hair between the second and third treatment. It happens quickly, with clumps falling out on your clothes, and clumps coming out in your hands when you wash your hair. She would wake up in the morning with hair all over her pillow. Since it falls out in patches and not all at the same time, many women shave their heads before it all falls out, or even when it is just beginning to fall out. Lara shaved hers early on and liked the feeling of control she had over the situation. It was the one thing she had control over during a time when she had no control over her body.
She says it hurts, more like aches, when your hair comes out. She likens it to when you take your ponytail out after having it in all day and your scalp aches. When you shave your head, you have to cut the hair down first. (She let her two year old cut her hair.) Then you shave it with an electric razor. She did not like the stubble and opted to shave it clean with a razor and shaving cream in the shower. She continued to shave it throughout her treatment.
She shaved her head on New Year’s Eve and then went out that night wearing a scarf on for the first time.
What about other hair on your body?
Some women lose all of the hair on their body. I mean ALL of it. But you can bank on losing your eyebrows and eyelashes at a minimum. (Some women lose the hair on their head, eyebrows and eyelashes, but still have to shave under their arms and their legs.)
Lara says she handled the loss of the hair on her head much better than losing her eyebrows and eyelashes. You never realize how much your eyebrows define your face, or how your eyelashes define your eyes until they are gone. She didn’t like the look of painted-on eyebrows, and she was unable to put on false lashes because her eyes watered all of the time due to the chemo. One time for an event, she went to a spa to ask for false eyelashes and they refused to do it, too scared of a reaction that her eyes might have.
Your hair is gone, now what?
You have to make a very personal decision here. Do you want to wear a wig, wear a scarf or go bald?
Lara finds that women older than 50 usually wear a wig immediately and go about their business. Women under this age usually opt for a scarf. Lara opted for the scarf. She tried on wig, but felt that it made her look phony. In some way, she wanted to wear a scarf to show people what she was going through.
For some women, nobody, even their children, ever saw them without the wig; they were trying to keep life normal and for them perception was reality.
This is where Hope Scarves comes into play.
Right after Lara’s first treatment, she was sent a box of scarves from a friend of a friend. They had been worn by a survivor and she passed them along after her hair grew back. Lara had no idea what size scarves or what type she would need and this alleviated that stress.
What kind of scarves work best?
Either 30 x 30 inch square scarf or an oblong scarf (which looks more like a rectangle) works the best. For the oblong scarf, it cannot be too thin in width or it will not cover the back of your head.
To tie it, start with a Virgin Mary look (i.e., drape the scarf across your head) and then tie in a knot behind your head. She would usually knot the ends a few times and then tuck under. When she felt fancy, she left the ties long. The photos below show you the step-by-step:
So what do you do with your ears when you wear a scarf?
Tuck them in or leave them out, it is all personal preference.
Lara tucked, as she felt like the scarf amplified the size of her ears (which are small and perfect like her head). The one thing Lara always wore were big earrings, as she felt that they made her look pretty. She never wore big hoops–she didn’t want to scare people away looking like a gypsy.
What about the process for getting ready to go out?
The process took only 10 minutes, tops. (She says this was definitely a plus.) She would take a shower and wash her head with body wash because she didn’t need shampoo at that point, then get out, dry off and get dressed. There was no hair to style, so she would put on scarf and earrings. She skipped makeup because it all ran off her eyes.
There’s a “secret society” of current patients and survivors you meet at unexpected times and places:
Once when Lara was shopping for shoes with her boys, a woman walked up to her and asked her if she was going through treatment. Lara affirmed that she was and then the woman, who had very short hair, informed her that she was a survivor, and such a new survivor that this was the first time she had gone out in public without her scarf. She met so many women like that who said something, gave her a hug or words of encouragement along the way.
What did it feel like going out in a scarf?
Lara says people definitely look and notice and then usually avert their eyes after noticing. It was hard NOT to notice Lara in the beginning, because she was bald and 8 months pregnant.
On the New Year’s Eve that she first donned the scarf, they went out to eat at restaurant. When she got up to go to the bathroom, she could feel every eye in the place staring at her. She went into a bathroom stall and cried. After she regained her composure, she walked back to her table. Later that evening, she went to a party at a friend’s house and to her surprise, they had hijacked her box of Hope Scarves and were all wearing one. Those are true friends!
Did you ever go out without the scarf? Or did anyone ever see you bald?
Lara says one time she answered the door bald when the UPS man was bringing a package, about scaring him to death. Another time, she ran out to pick up cupcakes for a birthday party bald and caught a reflection of herself in the mirror in the bakery, remembering she had forgotten to put her scarf on.
Kids are the most brutally blunt and honest, but never too afraid to look and to keep looking. One time Lara went out in the backyard and her neighbor, a young girl said, “Miss Lara, what happened to your hair?” Lara asked her if she liked it and she screamed “NO!”
Wigs are expensive. What is the best option here?
Usually your place of treatment can direct you to a wig and provide you resources for free or reduced-cost wigs. They usually retail for $500 and up.
What are the options for scarves?
Here are some great resources for scarves:
Hopescarves.org: Great way to give the perfect scarf to someone going through treatment or for yourself
Goodwishesscarves.org: provides a free wig to cancer patients–a great partner with Hope Scarves)
Headcovers.com: they have wigs, eyelashes and eyebrows as well.
Lara usually opted for cotton or blended scarves. She thought the silk ones slid around too much on her head. She didn’t buy sheer scarves, for obvious reasons.
What’s it’s like when the hair grows back?
Her hair grew back in phases and in clumps, so she kept shaving it until it came in more evenly. As Lara said, it grew back like stringy, gray pubic hair. She was horrified, thinking that could not be her hair. Here is Lara sporting a buzzcut at her son’s baptism. I think she is channeling Mia Farrow here.
Lara says it best when she told me that cancer treatment strips you of so many feminine things: hair, eyelashes, eyebrows, maybe breasts, maybe ovaries. Everything that makes you womanly is gone. The idea of Hope Scarves and of all cancer awareness programs is to help people feel beautiful. The way you feel about your looks defines you; it is who you are. When that changes, everything changes.
Thank you to Lara for bearing with me and my nosy, personal questions. She and all survivors are an inspiration to women everywhere. You really are bald and beautiful.