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A moment that changed me: I lost my hair to cancer – and the trauma taught me a vital lesson | life and style

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JHere are some things in life that we take for granted. We do not question them. I may not have always enjoyed “good hair days”, but I’ve always had big hair. I’ve never succumbed to tweaks, fillers or Botox in an attempt to hold back the ravages of time. It was my hair that I spent time, attention and money on. I could count on him to perform. When I was working, I took it off my face, with a bull clip, and then dropped it at night if I went out. He behaved well and, without seeming vain, I thought of it as my crowning achievement.

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that when I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in November 2020, aged 61, two days before England entered its second lockdown, one of the first questions questions I asked my oncologist was, “Will chemo make me lose my hair? His answer was: “Yes”. And he wasn’t lying. Within 10 days of completing my first cycle of chemo, I woke up one morning to find that my sleek mane had turned into a crazy bird’s nest: tangled, tangled and protruding from my skull like a huge halo vaporous.

I looked at him in horror and disbelief. It was then that I accepted the fact that I had cancer. It was sobering and sad. I tried to deny it; I haven’t brushed or washed it, lest it fall off. Instead, I called my hairstylist, Clive, to ask if he would come over and cut it into a short pixie cut. I couldn’t believe a single dose of chemo had done this to my shiny hair at such breakneck speed. It was like a slow break with a lover. I kept thinking: if only I had one more chance, I could make it work; I could save him.

Clive came that night and had to spend three hours untangling it before he could even try to cut it. He told me later that it was like tackling quicksand. The hair was sticking out in clumps, but it managed to shape my below-the-shoulder locks into a vaguely acceptable style. I was rather seduced, having never dared to cut my hair very short. That would do.

That night, I put my phone on the sink to FaceTime my oldest daughter. Out of habit, I ran my fingers through my hair. It came out in my hand. I did it again. And even. I sabotaged myself until I looked like a cancer patient. My separation was wide. You could see my scalp. I had clumps. I put on a beanie and cried myself to sleep.

The next morning, I had to go to the hospital for a blood test. I asked a nurse if she could shave off the remaining hair. Shaving your head, as a woman, is such a submissive act. I kept my head tilted, not watching the locks fall to the floor. I realize some women do this as a fashion statement and look gorgeous, but I was not that woman. I felt like every ounce of my femininity, my mojo, and my personality had left me. I had changed; I no longer felt myself.

Sarah Standing after getting the green light from cancer.
Sarah Standing after getting the all clear. Photography: Sarah standing/Instagram

I didn’t look in the mirror, I didn’t cry, but I felt hopeless. I didn’t show my husband or my family. I always kept my head covered. I hated my appearance. Ridiculous conceit, really, considering all the big fish I had to fry and the medical hoops I had to go through, but I found being bald really traumatic. My eyelashes are gone, then my eyebrows. I felt like an unfinished painting. An alien.

I discovered the transformative joy of wigs relatively late in my treatment. I deliberately chose two that looked nothing like my old hair, which was light brown, heavily – and expensively – highlighted and straight. One was short, blond and restless; the other was a sleek auburn bob. I liked them very much.

When my hair started growing back, about eight weeks after chemo ended, it was like watercress growing on blotting paper; soft like a newborn and spaced out. I kept that a secret too, but at night I stroked it in wonder. The more he grew, the curlier he became. Grayish, but lush, with a wave. I was so grateful that I started to like it. I still do. It’s not my old hair, but I’m not the old me.

Being deprived of a vital part of my armor for a long year taught me an important lesson: never trust your appearance. But we all do, to some extent; I know I did. The currency I subconsciously attributed to my well-being had a lot to do with outward appearances. Stripping the veneer and familiarity (not to mention femininity) from my very essence has been extremely unsettling. I looked in the mirror and saw a virtual stranger staring at me. No hair, no eyelashes, no eyebrows. I hated what I saw, yet, human nature being what it is, I gradually adapted to the cards I was given. There was no choice.

I got used to my appearance, because you can’t complain about having bad hair on days when you don’t have hair. In the end, being alive is all that matters.

dance with the red devil by Sarah standing is published by Headline (£20). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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