A brave face on baldness

When Katy Brown underwent chemotherapy for breast cancer, she faced a bleak choice - a bald head or an NHS wig. The wig lost

With the cruelty that seems to be restricted to adolescent humans, a schoolfriend and I used to catch a bus going in the wrong direction just in case we saw the conductress with the orange wig and the painted orange eyebrows. Then we'd dare each other to say "I like your hair", and the winner didn't pay for the doughnuts. For somebody with such a pathetic wig aversion, it was something of a shock to find myself 20 years later making an appointment with the hospital wig lady, as soon as I was told that I would lose all my hair through chemotherapy for breast cancer.

The National Health Service gives every patient who loses their hair a prescription for a synthetic wig. Whichever style I chose would cost pounds 46 (a real hair one costs pounds 175). When the drugs started taking their toll, I met her, explained what my hair used to be like - nearly shoulder length, slightly wavy and disgracefully blonde from far too much sun, sea and the odd chemical influence - and ordered my wig.

When the day for fitting came, my sister George was with me. She knows me better than anyone, and shares my anathema to wigs, but she was quietly insistent that this short, wavy, lifeless thing was just what I needed. Standing in front of the mirror with this strange hair being carefully arranged on my balding scalp was probably my lowest moment. George took me shopping afterwards, but I became obsessed with the idea that everybody was staring at me, and almost hysterical about the freakish concept of trying on clothes over my bewigged head.

I went to see Martin, who is now my second husband. Martin had been with me at many of the surgeon's and oncologist's sessions, and being the man he is (and being fairly follicly challenged himself), he didn't have a moment's concern at the thought of me with no hair. He just wanted me to take anything and do everything necessary to get better. But three weeks into treatment my hair was falling out in clumps, which in fact he found much harder to cope with than the egghead stage, and I told him I had this scary-monster wig in my pocket. He urged me to put it on, so I went out, arranged it and presented myself. "It's ... fine," he said. "It's absolutely ... kind of rather like your old hair. Now come here and give me a hug." Gingerly (or blondely, to be more accurate), I hugged him and he put his hand on my head. Huge shudder and gagging sound emerged, all mixed up with snorts of laughter. I tore it off, along with a few more clumps, all my prejudice confirmed. The wig was dumped in the dressing- up box.

To be fair, Jill Morris, the wig lady at the Royal United Hospital in Bath, who had spent hours trying to find me the best possible "hair", had suspected that I was not a wig person, and told me not to have one unless and until I really believed I wanted one. With all her enormous experience and sensitivity, she was absolutely right. Frankly, I am full of admiration and sisterly pride for those women who manage their wigs. With one exception, I was never lulled into believing that anyone in the clinic having treatment had hair, but most of them walked in with shoulders high, lipstick on and wigs in place, combed and perfectly arranged. There were grey, curly perms, neat, dark bobs, ash-blonde layers, all with - to me - that unreal boundary where wispy fringe covers wig webbing. Of course, I was hawkishly looking out for them and, since 90 per cent of people who lose their hair wear wigs and are very pleased with them, I knew I was the weirdo, not them.

Telling my children that I had breast cancer had felt like quite a big deal, but telling them that the nasty medicine I had to take to make me better would make my hair fall out was much worse. I looked really well when I found out that the lump was malignant, and perfectly normal with all my clothes on after surgery. It wasn't until my hair started to come adrift that it became obvious to them that it was all rather serious. Listing the possible side-effects of chemotherapy, my brilliant and very matter-of-fact oncologist, Dr Gareth Rees at the RUH, had added hair loss as if it was salt and pepper in a recipe. "Nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, constipation, exhaustion, increased risk of infection, mouth ulcers, oh yes, and hair loss." His tactful attempt to play it down to an obviously neurotic patient didn't change my reaction of fear and horror, and I felt I had to help myself and my children with that adjustment above all else.

Despite the popular cancer-and-death link, my children, then seven and four, really did not understand the implications of the disease, thank God. I decided not to go on about my hair falling out until it happened, but I had it cut very short straightaway. Breezily, I said the new hairdo was because quite soon it was going to fall out and then I'd have to wear a wig or a hat. There was much wailing and weeping, but I assured them it was going to make me better (lots of quiet, desperate hoping), and - Joyce Grenfell, eat your heart out - wouldn't it be fun having all those hats to dress up in. Hugo, the older one, instantly wanted to talk about wigs, entirely influenced by his familiarity with Roald Dahl's The Witches. He begged me not to wear one, imagining the accompanying characteristics of sore, itchy scalp, blue spit and no toes. Though I never told him, the itchy scalp bit was a dead ringer. Grace, the greatest dresser-up of all time, and far too young to have been exposed to the fiendish Witches, thought a wig would be the ultimate in glamour and infinitely preferable to the new, boring short hair, suggesting a "swing, swing" one like on the Timotei ads.

My parents were a mixture of heartbroken, strong and terrifically loving about the cancer, but their keenness that I got hold of a wig as soon as possible influenced my early actions. The thought of a bald 37-year- old daughter was just too much to bear, though when it actually happened my mother was calm and compassionate. My father really did prefer not to see me with no hair, so I didn't subject him to it till the chemo was over and there was at least the expectation, if not the signs, of it coming back.

Throughout the darkest, most tortured days of chemo, I wore a variety of all-encompassing furry hats, which I took off only with my closest friends, family (except Dad) and Gareth Rees. Whenever the doorbell rang, Hugo would zoom round to find a hat for me, insisting that nobody else should see my head. As time went on he started asking my friends if they'd seen it (ie been brave enough to look), and as everyone got a bit more relaxed about it, ironically I began to be glad that I had no hair. Though I hated how I looked, it proved to me that the drugs had got to every part of my body: by this time I had half a dozen eyelashes and no armpit or pubic hair, and I hadn't had my legs waxed for four months. This doesn't happen to everybody on chemotherapy - it entirely depends on the type of drugs you take, and it varies from person to person as to how much hair you lose. On being closely questioned, Dr Rees was typically straight about my case from the beginning. "I can promise you nothing about the cancer, but as for the treatment, I guarantee that you will lose your hair and it will come back."

Sure enough it did, but not quite how I'd remembered it. During radiotherapy, this dark, curly fluff started to appear, which progressed to brown spirals. People were very kind, talking about Annie Lennox and Grace Jones, but I don't have quite the same bone structure. One woman I met at this time looked amazing. During radiotherapy I sat next to her in the clinic, and in the all-in-this-together spirit I said how lucky she was that she hadn't needed chemotherapy. She replied that she had had the same three-month course as I had, and that she was wearing a wig. She had had her own long, glossy dark hair cut off to a quarter of an inch and the tresses fixed skilfully on to a muslin skullcap by a wigmaker in Scotland, with a price tag of pounds 1,000. Few people have such beautiful hair as to be worth saving, and even fewer have the spare cash, but to my mind hers was the only wig I've ever seen that was worth wearing.

Nine months from lift-off, my hair is now proper hair again, if darker and wavier, but my children still ask if it will ever be like it used to be. In fact, I've made the decision to keep it short for now, because the trauma of losing it was too great. But one thing Hugo said, as it was beginning to emerge again, proves to me that all children want is for mummies not to change. I asked him if he wanted to feel my new hair, and he recoiled. "I wish it wouldn't grow again. I suppose you could always shave it off, and then you'd stay just the same." Nothing is ever the same after cancer, I wanted to sayn

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