What is your first response to hearing the word "cancer"? If you're like many people, you will probably have two simultaneous thoughts: Death and fear - even though many more people survive it than die from it.
Despite this, that fear of death lurks in the hearts of many cancer patients and their loved ones. Adding insult to injury is learning that chemotherapy is recommended. Although there are numerous potential side effects, for the most part we hear about just two of them: hair loss and excessive vomiting - even though these do not necessarily occur in every case.
No doubt many people are willing to risk these side effects in an effort to save their lives, with hair loss seeming to be a relatively easy trade-off. And really, it's only hair and it grows back, right?
That might be your response - until it's your hair that we're discussing.
Flo Shustack, 60, of Calgary, ran the gamut of emotional responses in late 2007 with her breast cancer diagnosis. The beautiful and vivacious songbird, who made her living performing on stages and coaching singers, was stunned to discover that her annual mammogram would ultimately lead to those three words everyone dreads: "You have cancer."
At first, the news was good. Surgery should get all of it. But the doctor had been mistaken and the cancer had spread. A lot. Lumpectomy was no longer enough and chemotherapy - to be followed by 30 consecutive days of radiation - would be the preferred course of action.
Shustack's initial fear and many tears soon gave way to the memory of her late mother who survived three concentration camps during the Holocaust. "She had no control over what happened to her, other than her own strength and her own faith. She had to save herself. I had a choice. I had a tremendous amount of control and resources. In her memory and in her honour, I knew I would do whatever I had to do."
As a frequent public performer with a gorgeous head of beautiful dark curls, Shustack admits to having had a concern about losing her hair. "Everything about how I presented myself really had to be a certain way," she explains. "But I remember thinking, okay, we're doing this to save my life."
On hearing that her hair would begin to fall out between the first and second of the six chemotherapy treatments, Shustack shot into action before undergoing even one session. A teacher - and therefore, an organizer - for many years, she made sure to sort out getting a wig before the need arose. A friend directed her to Compassionate Beauty, a spa, shop and salon for women undergoing cancer treatment, where she was delighted to find that with some dye and a little styling, they could make a wig look like her own hair. She wanted the first one to be made of real hair, which Shustack said would help her through the transition.
"It didn't bother me with the others; they're all synthetic and they look great." Ever the planner, her subsequent wigs gradually changed colour and got longer, adding to the ongoing natural look.
Remembering the moment her hair first began to fall out, years later the emotion is evident on Shustack's face. "I was in the shower...there were chunks of it on the floor...it was creepy. Surreal."
With her wig at the ready, Shustack made an appointment at Compassionate Beauty to have her head shaved. Of that experience, she says, "I have no words. But it was better than having hair falling out."
Overall, Shustack rather enjoyed the wig experience, especially the short red one that highlighted her bubbly, vibrant personality for fun events. And there was the elegant "James Bond" style one, as she calls it. "She was one of the loves of my life, this persona. I was her so often."
Buying wigs at a regular shop can be difficult for some cancer patients as there are various skin conditions and other concerns that can spring up as a result of chemotherapy. Dealing with an organization that specializes in cancer care can make the entire experience much less traumatic for women who are already feeling physically ill, and who might also be feeling fearful on top of worrying about losing their femininity once all their hair falls out.
One might think that men are not particularly concerned with hair loss; after all, we are used to them being bald and some of them even choose it as a fashion statement (as do a handful of women). But in fact, men report similar feelings of anxiety at the prospect. Research revealed two gender differences: One was that where women are concerned with losing eyelashes and eyebrows, men were more bothered about other body areas, such as the chest. Another difference is that men prefer hats to wigs.
According to Paula Trotter at the Canadian Cancer Society, one of the main reasons why women don’t want to be seen bald or wearing the trademark scarves is that it is like announcing to the world that they are sick. It adds to an already vulnerable state of mind, when all they want is some sense of normalcy so they can focus on getting through their treatments and being well again.
There is a long list of services and support offered by the Canadian Cancer Society (www.cancer.ca). Not only is their mission to eradicate cancer, but also to enhance the lives of people who are living with the disease. Last year, they helped a total of 11,600 patients in Alberta and the Northwest Territories alone with their many programs such as providing financial assistance for travel to treatments, peer support, and a bank of volunteer drivers. Their wig-lending program provided help for nearly 300 of those patients, the majority of whom were women.
Another resource is the Look Good, Feel Better program, which has all kinds of advice, tips and information at lookgoodfeelbetter.org for women, or lookgoodfeelbetterformen.org.
Hopefully, there will come a time when the “C” word is not immediately associated with fear. With so many resources available to us and with advancements being made every day, I trust we will get there.