The C Word

Tag: Chemo

Hair Loss (“Shay, did you put your head in the Shine-O-Ball-O?”)

I’m taking a break from the gruesome posts about giant needles and the mass draining of my blood to cover something a little bit different: hair loss.

Now, I feel I should start by saying that obviously hair loss can occur for a variety of reasons. Many, many, people are going to suffer from hair loss/baldness throughout their lives from a variety of reasons – often simply because it’s just in their genes and/or they’re getting on in years. This blog post isn’t for them. This isn’t for the people who start noticing a bald patch when they’re 40 years old. And this is certainly not for those people who shave their heads, preferring to keep their heads shiny and bald (and more power to them). This, like everything else in this blog, is for those people undergoing cancer treatment and who will, in all likelihood, lose all of their hair in a matter of weeks. There is nothing natural about this process, and that’s why I’m covering it here.

Hair Loss

When you are first diagnosed with cancer, and when you first start the treatment (specifically chemotherapy, as radiotherapy will only make your hair fall out in the targeted area(s)) one of the last things on your mind is going to be your hair. You’ll be thinking about much bigger things, such as your life and how much longer you have left. You’ll be thinking of all things you’ve wanted to do and all the time you’ve wasted and all the people you love. If the first thing you’re thinking of is that your hair is going to fall out, something is probably wrong with you. However, even though hair loss might seem like a small thing in a much bigger picture (because, quite frankly, it is) the chances are, you’re still going to find it distressing. Why? Because, at least for me, when you run your fingers through your hair and pull your hand away to see it covered in hair, things start to become real. The hospital visits and the procedures and the wild ride you’re taken on while moving from appointment to test to appointment to test can at least be partially forgotten when you get home. However, when your hair is falling out all over your pillow, and when you have to look at yourself in the mirror watching as your appearance changes, you can no longer escape it. Cancer is part of you now, and you will be reminded of it every single day.

I’m a guy, and I understand that this process could very well be more distressing for women or simply guys who care a lot more about their hair than I do. One might even think I’m not qualified to talk on the subject as much as others, and they might be right. However, while I may not be super hair obsessed, I’d like to share a photo with you from ten years ago. I couldn’t actually find an appropriate photo so this photo of myself as a pirate Santa will have to do.

Pirate Santa

That’s my real hair. In fact, it actually got a bit longer than that before I decided to make myself employable and get it cut short. I have always been kind of partial to longer hair (although never anywhere near that long now, I’m long past that phase). I am not partial, at all, to not having ANY hair.

Six Years Ago – Hair Loss, Part 1

The first time I started chemotherapy, coming up to 6 years ago now, I started thinking my hair wouldn’t fall out. A couple of cycles in and my hair seemed as strong as ever. However, eventually the time came when, as I described earlier, I ran my hand through my hair and it came out covered in hair. It was alarming. Very alarming. I knew how I had to handle it though – I immediately went to the hair dressers and had them shave my head. This was easily the best decision to make, and if any readers are going through something similar, I STRONGLY suggest you shave your head as quickly as possible. As soon as you notice hair loss, don’t put yourself through the agony of watching it get worse every day. Just bite the bullet and shave it off. Also, as soon as you know you’ll be having chemotherapy, get your hair cut short. You don’t have to shave it, but get it cut as short as you think you can handle. This would be a GREAT opportunity to try out a hair cut that you’ve never had before – because chances are, it’s only temporary anyway. And if you like it, you can always do it again when your hair comes back, which chances are very high that it will once the treatment has finished.

Having said that… as soon as I shaved my head, my hair stopped falling out. I never actually went bald. My hair started growing again and eventually went back to normal. In fact, during radiotherapy I had a bald patch at the back of my head down near my neck, but the rest of my hair was actually fairly long considering it was only shaved a few months earlier. So what I’m saying is – you MAY NOT go bald. However I wouldn’t count on it. The best thing you can do is to assume that you will, and if you don’t, count your blessings.

This Time Around – Hair Loss, Part 2

I wasn’t naive enough to think I’d be that lucky again. This time I was going to be taking a different kind of chemotherapy will all new drugs so there was no reason to think I’d keep my hair. I was totally prepared for it. On the day I was called in for the first chemo session, I was on my way to get my hair cut. I meant to get it cut fairly short but my hairdresser had other ideas. It was shorter, but not ‘short short’. Still, it was different, and since it was temporary, I kept it.

It took no time at all for my hair to start falling out this time. And, like last time, I went back to the same hair dresser and had him shave my head with the closest shave he could do (a zero). One positive I should point out, is that so far I’m yet to find a hair dresser that has ever charged me to shave my head because my hair is falling out due to chemo. I guess that’s not all that surprising – but hey, free haircut!

Unlike last time, my hair didn’t start growing back. Well, not really. I’ve never been COMPLETELY bald – there’s tiny hairs on my head and my facial hair does attempt to grow back (I had the SOFTEST moustache ever the other week. It felt amazing). However, I look bald. Even my eyebrows, which have struggled to stay with me all this time, have started to give way. Nobody wants to have no eyebrows, but that’s a fate I’m facing right now.

Here’s a recent photo of me:

Bald head

Hair loss cons:

Cons are pretty obvious for hair loss, so I’m only going to list a couple of ones you’re probably unaware of / haven’t thought of.

Eyelashes constantly falling into your eyes. Yep, your eyelashes aren’t safe from hair loss, so you’ll end up blinded by them more often than usual (not CONSTANTLY – you only have so many)- The feeling of shattered glass. I don’t know what caused this exactly, and it didn’t happen 6 years ago, but towards the beginning of my hair loss, if I touched the top of my head, it felt like I was pushing shattered glass into my scalp. I assumed this was due to hair falling out and basically stabbing my scalp but I really don’t know. It made sleep difficult because it’s kind of hard to lie down and have your scalp touch nothing, so basically it was like sleeping on a pillow of nails. I have no idea if this is a common thing or the exact cause, like I said. I’d be interested to know if anyone out there has experienced the same thing.
Loss of facial hair. By now, everyone knows that facial hair is the best. Plus, if you’re a hipster, you’re basically going to be shattered by losing your hipster beard.

Hair loss… pros?

Yep, they definitely exist! And these are the ones, if you’re going to be losing your hair soon, that you should be focussing on, because I mean every word!

Fantastic for Summer / wind in general. When I first had my head shaved, we drove home with the window down and the wind on my scalp felt amazing! It still does. On a hot day, putting water on the top of your head and feeling the breeze on it is simply wonderful.
Best showers ever. The water pouring down straight onto your scalp actually feels great. Every shower is like a head massage. Also, showertime is now super quick. No more washing of hair and it takes like 30 seconds to get dry when you’re done!
New hairstyle. You’ve never had a better time to try out a random new hairstyle – because if it doesn’t look any good, it won’t matter for long. As soon as you start chemo, I HIGHLY recommend getting your hair cut as short as you can manage, to make your hair falling out less distressing. However, if you want to get a mohawk or something just because you can, I am highly supportive of this too. You’ve never had a better chance to do something random with your hair, so do it. If your hair never falls out, then… that mohawk will grow out eventually. Don’t blame me.
Smooth! Sure, the hair on the top of your head is gone and making you look a little like Gollum, but hair loss isn’t just going to occur there. Say goodbye to constant waxing/shaving, ladies (and guys who are that way inclined). Honestly I could get used to this.

What to do?

There may be pros, but they’re probably not going to help you feel any less self-conscious. The fact is, part of your individuality has been stripped from you, and that can be hard to deal with. So I’ve decided to summarize some of the more popular methods here for dealing with hair loss when going out in public.


Beanies are an easy fall back. They’re everywhere, and they’ll keep your head warm which is going to be quite necessary in the colder months. Plus you have plenty of options. I’ve made a quick beanie guide for you to follow below.

Regular beanie

Sports beanie

Novelty beanie

Beanie baby

Head scarves:-

Head scarves are probably the most common covering utilised by those who have lost their hear to cancer treatment, and for good reason. Scarves are, after all, plentiful and can be adjusted to taste. Unless of course you’re in my house, in which not only are there no suitable scarves, but I am entirely unaware of how to actually wrap one around my head. And that leads to this:-



Wearing a wig is always an option, though somewhat extreme. You could go out of your way to buy an expensive, quality wig, only to never need it again a month or so. However, it’s still an option and will let you try out some fancy new styles or colours that you wouldn’t normally be about do with your actual hair. You can even do this without breaking the bank – the below examples show what can be done with only $20!

Elvis(?) wig

Mullet wig (all class)

Nothing at all:-

Alternatively, and perhaps the best option, is simply to do nothing at all. This is a time when you are, or have been, fighting for your life. The baldness probably won’t last, but while it does, wear it as a badge of honour. People will likely know what it means, and they will understand. No one is going to be judging you for your looks during this time, and it wouldn’t matter if they did. Your life is far more important than what you look like, and that baldness symbolises the possibility of several more years you get to keep on living. Embrace it.

And finally, I’ll leave you with an image of what that terrible Elvis wig was actually supposed to look like:
Wig - Elvis Comparison


Chemo – Part 2 (It’s my birthday and I’ll have HORRIBLE toxins injected into my body if I want to)

I’ve been a little slack with updates here, and for that I apologise. However, with Christmas, New Years and my birthday all having gone by, and a few rough days following the last chemo, I have excuses.

I have had my second and third doses of chemo now, having had these in Day Oncology, rather than requiring a hospital stay. This experience was closer to what I experienced 5 years ago, though 5 years ago I didn’t have anywhere quite as fancy as the Olivia Newton-John centre to go to.

The process is relatively simple. You enter a big room full of comfy recliners, sit in one of the recliners, and stay there for a few (in my case, around 5) hours while the chemo drugs are pumped into you via a cannula. The set up looks like the below:-

2013-12-06 10.23.30

If you’re wondering what’s on my arm, it’s a heat pack. It’s been placed there prior to attempting to put the cannula into me, because my veins were being kind of lousy. The warmth brings them up a bit and makes them easier to get to.  You’ll also notice my new Vin Diesel look. I assure you all that I’m in much better physical shape than him.

Apart from the differences in location and atmosphere, the process is pretty much the same. A number of different drugs get pumped into you and then you go home. What happens once your home is just about anyone’s guess. Everyone reacts differently. Some people won’t have any side effects and others will be a total mess. My experience this time is different to the last time I had chemo. I have days when I feel perfectly healthy, and then I have days when it’s a lot harder than it was 5 years ago (when I pretty much just slept a lot).

Chemo – Dose 2 (December 6th 2013)

Arriving home after chemo I felt fairly tired and spent a lot of time on the couch. This was expected. What I didn’t expect was the heartburn/indigestion that would keep me up at night over the first few days. It was unpleasant to say the least. However, it only lasted a few days, and was nothing compared to what was to come. 5 to 6 days after the treatment, I grew incredibly tired and ‘out of it’. It was basically like having the flu (hot / cold flashes included). I was almost delirious, and getting out of bed was near-impossible. This only lasted a couple of days, fortunately, and in that time my temperature never rose above normal levels, which is good because if it had I’d have had to go to the ER. After this excitement, not a whole lot happened as I gradually felt healthier over the next several days until a few days before the next cycle where I basically felt fine.

Chemo – Dose 3 (December 30th 2013)

I felt basically like I always do leaving the Austin and heading home. Lethargic and ‘wrong’ in a sense, but okay. By that night however, I’d gone backwards a little, and for the first time ever I ended up throwing up due to chemo (it took 5 years, but it finally got me). This was rather unpleasant. I had similar heartburn/indigestion issues which this time I was prepared for with some prescribed Somac (I’m not sure if it actually helped, to be honest, but it couldn’t hurt). I felt fairly sick and horrible (though nothing compared to how I felt a week into the previous chemo cycle) for the first 8 or 9 days. On my birthday, the 7th, I went out to dinner and felt mostly fine until I’d eaten something and felt kind of sick. This wasn’t a nauseous kind of sick mind you, but had more to do with the indigestion/heartburn feelings from earlier. It wasn’t really until yesterday, the 9th, where I had my first full day of relative health. I also feel fine today. (Although, ‘fine’ being a relative term. I don’t exactly feel like I could run a marathon, though I do feel able to walk down to the shops at least if need be). Of course, this being what it is, I have no idea how I’ll feel tomorrow or the day after that. I just have to hope I stay this way, feeling somewhat healthy and myself, until the next dose on the 24th.

It is becoming clear that with each cycle, it’s getting harder. To know that I’m only halfway isn’t pleasant. To know that one of the doses coming up will be a ‘mega-dose’ (if you will) that will require a stem cell transplant (taking stem cells from me prior to the chemo, to put back into me later) so that they can use my own stem cells to heal my body which won’t be able to heal itself – isn’t pleasant either.

But hey, at least the weather’s good!

Bonus content!  That was meant to be the end, but I totally forgot one of the main points of this blog post, so I’m adding it below!

What I almost (totally did) forget to mention, is that I’m now injecting myself with a needle the day after each cycle. This drug in this needle is meant to boost the production of my white cells in order to help me recover faster from each chemo cycle. It’s quite similar to the needles diabetics need to deal with every day of their lives, and as the nurse told me, if 8 year old girls can do it, I sure can. However, if you really dislike needles, I’d suggest you skip over the following images entirely.

The syringe, as it comes out of the box.
2013-12-31 15.08.18

Lining the syringe up with my fat – of which, fortunately, I have plenty. What you may not be able to make out is that needle has a VERY slight curve at the tip which indicates which way you should be pointing it. The curve should be aimed towards yourself. You hold the needle in a similar fashion as you would a dart. (Note: I do not recommend practicing this by jabbing a dart into your stomach.)
2013-12-31 15.14.31

Needle goes in! This is actually entirely painless. That is to say, you can’t feel it AT ALL. It’s actually kind of remarkable. In fact, someone could be injecting you with something in the stomach RIGHT NOW and you wouldn’t even know.
2013-12-31 15.14.41

This is when you use the top of the syringe to inject the drugs into you. You actually can feel this, but only mildly. It’s best to do this part quite slowly (I haven’t tried to do it fast, but I was told that to do so might be painful).
2013-12-31 15.14.56

The cool thing about these particular syringes, is once you’ve pushed the top down all the way, a mechanism inside the casing grabs hold of the needle and then pulls it back inside itself. Like so:-
2013-12-31 15.15.19    2013-12-31 15.15.32

These pills actually have nothing to do with the injections. I just forgot to write about them earlier in the post so I’m including them here. I have to have these 4 pills every morning for the first 3 days after chemo (also on the day of chemo, just before). They’re steroids and presumably, if I lost my appetite, they would give it back to me. However since I haven’t lost my appetite as of yet, they’re not doing a great deal. If anything, I’m likely putting on weight (this happened to me 5 years ago too). Sadly, the steroids have yet to make me look even MORE like Vin Diesel.
2013-12-31 13.24.21

There’s also another update which is borderline criminal of me to forget to add. My last meeting with my Oncologist revealed (via the PET scan) that the cancer within me has reacted well to the chemo and is almost completely gone already. This doesn’t in any way mean I’m in the clear, but it’s obviously a good sign and I’m sure you’ll all be thrilled to hear it, as I was.

And since I already used my closing ‘at least the weather’s good’ line, I’ll simply say that I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas, and Happy New Year to all of you.

Chemo – Part 1 (Chemo chemo chemo chemo chemo chameleon)

On November the 12th in a meeting with my Oncologist, I was told that, according to test results, the cancer had progressed slightly, so there would be no more delaying the treatment. I was going to receive a call some time on either that day (a Wednesday), the following day, or Friday, whenever a bed become available.

I had chemo 5 years ago, so I thought I knew what to expect. However, this first session involved a hospital stay, which was something new, as all 4 treatments last time were just day procedures and never involved me having to stay in the hospital overnight.

I received a call the following morning (as I was on my way to get a haircut – which I’ll go into more in a future blog post I intend to dedicate to hair loss) asking me to come in around lunch time. I did so, and was (eventually) shown to my bed. It was a pretty fancy bed, which sadly took me way too long to work out (the ON button doesn’t necessary work the way you think it will):-
2013-11-13 13.49.23 (Medium)

I then proceded to IMMEDIATELY hit my head on this thing:-
2013-11-13 13.50.53 (Medium)

On the plus side, the view from my window was pretty good and when I arrived they were already playing my jams:-
2013-11-13 13.49.44 (Medium)  2013-11-13 13.52.25 (Medium)

A nurse then put a cannula in my arm (as you can probably imagine from the previous blog posts, this is something I’ve grown quite accustomed to):-
2013-11-13 17.33.25 (Medium)

And don’t I just look thrilled about it?
2013-11-13 17.57.17 (Medium)

It was now that the wait began. I was told I would be in the hospital for 1 or 2 days, but by the time everything was sorted, it ended up being too late to actually perform the chemo, which meant I had to wait overnight in the hospital for basically no reason. As you can imagine, this wasn’t thrilling news, but fortunately I’d stocked my Galaxy Tab with TV shows and came well prepared.

Early next morning, the chemo actually began. There were 4 different drugs involved. The combination/type of chemo is called RCHOP, different from the type I had 5 years ago (ABVD) so I didn’t know exactly what to expect. In both cases, one of the drugs was orange coloured (it may be the same drug, I’m not sure). This goes through you pretty quickly, and – I feel I should warn you – is the same colour coming out as it is going in.

The orange one:-
2013-11-14 09.06.02 (Medium)

Some other random one, hooked up to the… pole… thing:-
2013-11-14 09.37.43 (Medium)

The process of having chemotherapy done to you doesn’t really hurt at all. That’s not what everyone fears with chemo. I did have it through my hand 5 years ago, and one of the drugs, if pushed through too quickly, could hurt a little, but this time around, through the arm, I could barely feel it. It’s not the process of inserting the chemotheraphy that’s difficult, but the aftermath. The days and weeks following this, even when the drugs have been totally flushed from your system, is the real struggle. Chemo targets cancer cells, but chemotheraphy is quite far from a perfect science. As such, it takes a whole heap of cells you actually want down with the cancer cells – particularily the fast growing cells – such as your skin cells among others (this is also why it’s common for people’s hair to fall out, but as I’ve said, I’ll go into that more in a future blog).

What this means, though, is that immediately following the treatment, I felt perfectly fine. I had to stay in overnight for observation, and by the following day I started getting pretty anxious when it looked like I might have to stay in yet another night. It’s one thing to stay in hospital when you feel sick, but when you actually feel healthy, it’s quite another. On the plus side, the food at the Austin actually wasn’t too bad! I’m not sure if that’s just for the cancer ward for if it’s the same menu across the whole hospital, but it was fairly decent food (as below):-
2013-11-14 09.55.57 (Medium)

The only other real positive was that I was labelled ‘ridiculously photogenic hospital guy’, following this photo of myself being posted online:-
2013-11-13 20.13.22 (Medium)

Fortunately though, I was released on Saturday after only a 2 night stay.

The side effects have so far been rather kind to me. I didn’t really suffer from any nausea (one of the most common symptoms, though I didn’t experience any during the course of my treatment 5 years ago either), however I did have some pretty bad heartburn/indigestion for about a week after (I have since been given some meds to help with this after the next chemo session, which is actually tomorrow). There were a couple of days when I felt particularly out of it, and there are obviously some expected side effects of fatigue and a general feeling of weakness, but so far nothing that was too extreme.

I know that last time I had chemo (the ABVD type) my body just felt wrong all over. It basically felt like what it is – poison running through your veins. However, so far I haven’t felt that to the same degree. Whether or not that’s just because I’ve only had the one dose, I’m not sure. Like I said, there were a few days where I simply NEEDED to sleep in the middle of the day and collapsed on the couch, and couldn’t even fathom the idea of walking 100 metres down the street, but all in all I’ve managed to get through these first few weeks pretty easily. In fact, I managed to play a few games of mini golf (winning all three, citing ‘chemo power!’ as the key to my victory).

While I’ve coped fairly well so far, I’m not being so naive to think that this is the way my body will react for the next 5 treatments. Maybe I’ll get through this in a similar fashion, but I know things could, and likely will, start getting harder. In fact, I have been told that after a couple more doses of this chemo, they’re going to amp the dosage up a fair bit following a stem cell collection. The dosage will be so high that my body physically won’t be able to cure itself, so the stem cells they’ve collected from earlier will need to be given back to me to boost my body’s own healing. That sounds like fun.

So tomorrow I’m going in again, and assuming my white cell counts are okay (they were a bit low earlier in the week but I had another blood test today to see if they’re up to an appropriate level to allow me to have another dose), I’ll have my second dose. Wish me luck.

Oh, and after the last session (immediately after) I was told that if the cannula comes out of the vein or isn’t in properly, two out of the 4 drugs can cause my skin to DIE when they are going in, causing me to require skin grafts. So yeah, that’s good to know.