June 5, 2007 / 9:20 AM / 13 years ago

WITNESS: Living with breast cancer: Bald isn't so bad

Deborah Charles has worked for Reuters as a correspondent around the world since 1990 with postings in Argentina, Canada, Thailand and Spain. She was appointed to cover the White House in 1999 and switched to the security and justice beat in Washington after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. An active cyclist and outdoor enthusiast, Charles, 42, was diagnosed with breast cancer in November last year. She has just finished treatment.

In the following story, she describes how the discovery that she had breast cancer and treatment has affected her life and those around her. Her husband tells his side of the story in “Living with breast cancer: the husband”.

By Deborah Charles

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - It’s not so bad being a bald woman. In fact, I’ve gotten so used to it that the $300 blonde wig I bought to cover my scalp sits unused on its Styrofoam head.

I had been dreading the day when the chemotherapy I have had for breast cancer would make my hair fall out.

Although I’d had extensive surgery, no one could really tell from the outside that I had cancer. But once my hair fell out it would be clear to everyone.

On my first real venture out as a newly bald woman, I went to the airport for a flight to Florida. I was wearing a scarf and it was obvious I was bald. I felt self-conscious but was also intrigued to see how people would react.

When I went through security, one of the screeners — often stereotyped as being surly, no-nonsense government employees — offered to carry my belongings to an area with a chair so I could more easily put on my shoes.

Then on the airplane a woman with short hair asked if I was going through chemotherapy and then said she had finished her treatment a few months earlier. We became instant “cancer friends” as she recounted how her hair grew back.

More often than not, people seem sympathetic. “Nice hat,” a colleague told me this month when I returned to work in our newsroom. That was all he said. Others complimented me on my different headgear each day before pausing at my desk to ask how I felt.

Sometimes people do stare, or try hard not to. In the locker room at the gym one day I could see a few women looking at my head and the scars on my chest before quickly looking away.

SHEARING IT ALL OFF

Powerful chemotherapy drugs attack rapidly growing cancer cells. At the same time, they can kill off other fast growing cells in the body, including those in hair follicles. Once the cells in hair roots die, the hair falls out.

My oncologist had said my hair would likely start falling out about 14 days after my first treatment, which was in March, and I didn’t want to be one of those people who shed hair all over their clothes.

I decided I wanted to be in control, not the drugs. If I was going to lose my hair, baldness would be my badge of honor. I would just shave it all off.

Just as predicted, about two weeks after the first treatment, I found myself clutching a clump of hair after absent-mindedly running my hands through my hair.

I started pulling at bits of my hair to see if it really was coming out. It was, though I was interested to discover it didn’t hurt when I tugged at it.

After another couple of days I decided it was time to get rid of it. Todd, my husband, said he would shave his head too to keep me company.

That night we turned on a mix of party music, opened a good bottle of red wine and took out the shears.

We had fun; we gave each other Mohawk cuts before shearing off all the hair and letting it fall to the kitchen floor. We even took pictures to document the moment.

It felt strange and a bit cold. When I went to bed, the stubble on my head stuck to my flannel pillowcase, almost like Velcro. My scalp was so sensitive that it hurt to lie on the little hair that remained. So I slept in a cotton cap, which also helped keep me warm.

Never one for scarves, I now have a colorful collection of them to wear on my head. I’ve also started collecting dangling earrings, which I wear to focus attention away from my baldness.

Friends threw me a hat party, where everyone wore a hat or scarf and I went home with an armful of fun headgear.

It doesn’t take long to get ready in the morning, either: I won’t have to shave my legs or underarms for months and I don’t have blow dry my hair.

But I am still excited for the day when my hair returns. I wonder if it will be straight and blonde as before.

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