Here's What I Wish People Would Stop Saying About My Post-Chemo Hair

For people who‘ve undergone treatments for cancer, hair loss is a common but nevertheless stressful side effect. And, contrary to popular belief, the hard part isn't over when your hair starts to return. Here, survivor Kelly Mellott shares her experiences with learning to embrace her new hair (and the comment she wishes other people would quit making about it). This story is part of our series on women's experiences with cancer & hair loss.

Name: Kelly Mellott (@kmellott)
Location: Charlottesville, VA
Age: 34
Profession: Health care content marketing and social media marketing
Diagnosis: Breast cancer, diagnosed at 32, and BRCA1 genetic mutation, a genetic mutation that greatly increases a woman’s risk of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer.

My hair was long before I started treatment but I always disliked it, so I never really mourned the loss of having long hair as much as I did the idea of what baldness represented — being sick. The hair on my head started growing back in during the last few rounds of chemo, male-pattern-baldness style like a little baby bird. But my eyebrows and eyelashes, which had still managed to hang on by a few hairs until then, all finally fell out at that time so it was really frustrating! 

Everything was coming and going and growing at different times. I got my hair trimmed and dyed as soon as I had enough to work with. I was really lucky to have a dear friend who's a hairstylist — she gave me someone I could trust when I was bald and feeling vulnerable or during those awkward patchy phases. Her help support helped me make choices that better facilitate my hair goals.

I ended up liking my hair — a platinum-blonde pixie I would've never picked for myself otherwise — so much more than I'd thought. In fact, I'm considering keeping it long-term, though for now, I'm letting it grow out because I can.

How I handled the awkward phase: I think I am still in that phase. The first hair that I had growing in was curly and frizzy. Before chemo, my hair was thin and flat. I had to find the right products to keep my new curls happy. It was a lot of learning and experimenting.

I've also made a commitment to use toxic-free products, so that was a challenge, too. One product I ended up liking was Sun Bum Texturizing Surf Paste Styling Product. The next thing I would say would be to find fun accessories, which helped quite a bit. Headbands and barrettes are my favorite things right now and they are really on-trend so it’s easy to find something for every style.

Favorite hair milestone: I haven't reached it yet, but I am anxiously awaiting my first ponytail. I can get a baby/half-pony in now with a few bobby pins, but I think the day I can pull it back into a real ponytail is when I’ll really start to feel like I’m past the season of post-chemo hair!

Pet peeve: The thing that bothers me the most is when people would say something like, "Wow, I always wished I could pull off short hair but I've never been brave enough to try. Looks great on you, though!" I know people think they mean this as a compliment, but going bald wasn't really a choice, so please don't compare it. I've had a few people say something like this not knowing my story, but then even after I explain it to them the double-down on that sentiment: "Good for you! You're totally rocking it. I just don't think everyone can pull it off like you!"

Biggest challenge: I actually struggled a bit with my hair coming back in the sense that I felt like I lost that outward symbol that I had just been through something really traumatic and I was still really fragile. Since I went through radiation and another six months of chemo all while my hair was coming back in, I worried that people wouldn't see me as "sick" anymore, though I still was, and expect me to be back to "normal." 

This definitely did happen. I got comments like, "You don't look sick at all!" on the same days I spent getting additional fluids at the infusion center because I was so sick from chemo. That was really frustrating at times.

Biggest lesson: I've learned to keep an open mind to trying something new. I've been so amazed at how much I've actually really liked my new looks and find myself constantly saying, "I never would’ve tried this on my own." I had to learn to let go of the idea of precancer me so that I could embrace a whole new, improved version of myself.

Advice for other women growing back their hair post-treatment: Don't compare your progress to others. It can be easy to get discouraged but everyone’s body is different and responds to treatment and recovery differently, too. It seems like some people's hair grows ridiculously fast while others crawl along. It's all so unique to you so don’t be discouraged if yours isn't the same as someone else’s.

— As told to Jennifer Garam. Survivor interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

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