What It's Like To Lose Your Natural Hair To Chemotherapy

08/21/2016 12:27 pm ET Updated Aug 24, 2016

My natural hair journey started four years ago. After several attempts to go natural and slipping back to the creamy crack, I finally took the plunge and stopped relaxing my hair. It was a decision made out of my sheer admiration for women who confidently wore their hair naturally kinky, curly. I wanted to duplicate the look. I loved the natural kinky, coily, curly hair that sisters were sporting, and I couldn’t stop that longing that I had to be natural too. I was the sister who always washed her hair after paying money to have it relaxed because it looked too straight and flat. Natural hair had texture, body and a personality that I wanted to duplicate with my own head of hair. After an awkward transition period, I took the plunge, did the big chop and never looked back. I loved all things related to natural hair and even started to blog on the topic.

My creamy crack days
My creamy crack days

Then in 2015, I learned that I had breast cancer. My cancer had not spread and was highly treatable, but the recommended treatment would include chemotherapy and radiation. In my case, based on the type of chemo treatment that I would receive, I would lose every last strand of my naturally kinky, coily hair.

I was thankful to be alive. I was thankful that my condition was treatable and hadn’t spread; yet I could not ignore the irony of the fact that I spent almost four years of growing out my coils only to lose every last strand of my hair because of the chemo that would be pumping through my veins obliterating any remaining cancer cells.  

My unstyled hair just a few days before my first chemotherapy treatment
My unstyled hair just a few days before my first chemotherapy treatment

I had no idea what to expect, so I started doing research online to learn more about other black women who have lost their hair because of chemotherapy. My doctor was helpful in his own way, but all he could say is that I would lose my hair and that it would grow back. There was very little information online that highlighted the experiences of black women with Afro-textured hair who have lost their hair through chemotherapy. Two weeks after my first chemo treatment, my hair started to fall out in clumps. Two days later, I was completely bald.

I was able to learn quite a bit from the stories of white women who experienced chemotherapy related hair loss. Many women reported that their hair texture more often than not changed from straight before chemo to curly after chemo. The phenomenon is known as “chemo curls”. During the transition period between chemo induced hair loss and post chemo hair growth, women reported extreme hair color changes i.e. going from dark hair pre chemo to totally gray or starting as blondes and turning brunette as the hair began to grow in. Many revealed that these changes were permanent despite being several years post chemo. Others reported that their hair never grew back at all.

I became nervous and wondered if my natural hair would grow back. My oncologist shared that my hair would start to grow 2 months after my last chemo treatment. Would my hair color or texture change? My hair was kinky/coily before chemo with clear signs of gray. According to the popular hair typing chart, my curl texture was a mix of primarily 4b with a sprinkling of 4a and 4c. Honestly, I just prayed that my hair would grow back – period.

Literally two months to the day after my last chemotherapy treatment, I saw signs that my hair was starting to grow back! It was just peach fuzz for sure but it was a sign that it was growing. My hair color did not change.

In February of 2016, two months later, real hair started to replace the peach fuzz. But this wasn’t “my” hair by a long shot - it was straight. I remember thinking once again about the irony of it all. ‘ I’m a natural hair blogger with straight hair’! The chemotherapy definitely affected my hair in ways that I had not anticipated.

 

Three months post chemo
Three months post chemo

It’s now August - nine months after my last chemotherapy treatment and I’m happy to report that my hair continues to grow. I’m excited that my hair texture changed from straight to curly. But it still is not quite “my” hair. My hair texture in fact did change from its kinky, coily texture to a slightly curlier texture.  It is actually several different textures ranging from curly to kinky: Curlier on the top and at the nape of my neck. Kinkier along the edges and in the back.  My hair is not as thick as it was pre chemo although it looks as if it is for which I am grateful. It has only been a few months since my hair started growing in earnest so I’m anticipating that my hair will continue to evolve and possibly go back to its original texture and thickness. At this stage, I’m thankful that I’m healthy and that my hair actually grew back. I know that not everyone is as lucky. 

Just as the hair on my head started to grow back, I lost all of my lashes and eyebrows. Eyelash/brow hair loss is another side effect of the chemo process along with the loss of other body hair.  According to my doctor, the lashes and brows often fall out several weeks after chemo. It is taking much longer for the lashes and brows to grow back but there are signs of growth.

The goal of sharing my cancer hair loss journey, clearly a highly personal experience, is to help other black women who may be wondering what to expect from chemotherapy.  Everyone’s experience is different but it helps to have a glimpse into another person’s journey. 

This post is part of HuffPost’s My Natural Hair Journey blog series. Embracing one’s natural hair — especially after years of heavily styling it — can be a truly liberating and exciting experience. It’s more than just a “trend.” It’s a way of life. If you have a story you’d like to share, please email us atMyNaturalHairJourney@huffingtonpost.com.

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