A bald head. It's like wearing a sign round your neck saying Cancer Victim. Suddenly everyone is offering advice or consolation, sharing their war story or, if you're really unlucky, making an ill-advised quip. Going beyond the comfort zone of home, work, and friends' houses invites curious looks and sotto voce "Oh dears".
So I find myself in the curious position of empathising with Jade Goody, erstwhile reality TV anti-hero. Goody last week lost her hair as a side effect of her chemotherapy treatment for ovarian cancer and is said to be devastated. My own hair fell out when I started chemotherapy last September, and "devastating" is simply the only word for the experience.
For a woman, losing all your hair is far more traumatic than any scar might be. A breast can be reconstructed, but hair can't. Of all the brutal facts that are laid out during meetings with surgeons, oncologists and cancer care nurses, hearing that you will see your most visible symbol of femininity disappear is the vilest news. Eyelashes and eyebrows also fall away, leaving the emotionally vulnerable looking physically depleted too.
A cancer charity in America recently revealed thata number of women refuse treatment because the side effect is worse – for them – than the illness. My own oncologist confirms this, particularly in women facing cancer for a second or third time, when treatment might be about prolonging life rather than a cure.
Why would you choose to suffer upsetting hair loss when you might have only months to spend with your friends and family? My own son said, "No offence, mum, but I don't want to be seen with you", when I told him I was likely to go bald. I'd rather not be seen with myself bald, quite frankly, but there's not much choice. (Don't get me started on wigs, every one of which I tried was fake-looking and prohibitively expensive). And I'm not in the public eye, as Jade Goody is.
For years, she invited the nation's paparazzi and gossip hounds into her life via reality shows and press interviews. Now she's behind closed doors, working out what the hell to do when none of her clothes work with a bald head. God knows, I know.
My advice? Everyone, bar the paparazzi, is going to find it fascinating only for the first day. After that, you go back to being you, but with less hair. So don't waste money on wigs or eyebrow tattoos. Get down to Topshop, which has a dazzling array of vintage headscarves, and buy dozens. One in every colour. Spend a day working out which styles look jaunty, and which make you look like a Kazakh grandmother. Get a good eye pencil and draw in your brows each morning. Takes but a minute.
Tell your kids the truth. Goody has said she kept her true diagnosis from her sons and told them that tadpoles in her tummy were making her ill. Yes, they're only five and four, but children can sense the seriousness of a situation and will, later, thank you for taking them into your confidence. Seeing you bald will scare them more if they don't know the context.
Ignore the well-meaning advice of the cancerbackup website, which suggests that "wearing a little extra make-up around your eyes, cheekbones or lips will help to direct attention to your face.... Brightly coloured shirts, sweaters, ties or tops draw attention away from your hair".
By all means, cover your head until your hair grows back – which it will. For compared with the daily mountain you must climb to get out of bed and into hospital to fight the damned disease, faking "normal" hair just ain't worth the bother. To paraphrase someone else's slogan: We're here. We're bald. Get used to it.