The photograph you see of me was taken in Majorca the day after my sixth chemotherapy treatment. I finished the treatment on 6th June 2016 and flew to Palma on the 7th. YES, I have hair and I was so pleased given the 30 degree heat - not an ideal temperature for wearing a wig and being able to take a dip in the pool…
In November 2015, I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 59. When I was advised of the treatment plan - a lumpectomy (not successful), mastectomy (immediate reconstruction) followed by six rounds of chemotherapy and radiotherapy - my thoughts eventually turned to losing my hair. Given the journey ahead of me, I could not help but think this is going to be a long road that will be even harder to travel without hair.
During the pre-assessment for chemotherapy, the nurse said I was eligible for hair cooling treatment (scalp cooling) as the meeting was closing. When I asked about the treatment and how it works, I was told it was extremely uncomfortable, it had a limited success rate and there was every possibility that my hair would fall out. Undeterred, I decided to seek a second opinion and discussed the cooling system with my consultant who gave me the best advice “What have you got to lose? If you don’t try it, you will never know”.
I am a keen sportswoman, but unfortunately my energy levels were somewhat depleted during treatment. However, one of the benefits of the cooling system was giving me the opportunity to practice yoga three or four times a week with no wig, no headscarf and no pitying glances. I decided not to tell my friends at the health club about my treatment. Previous experience had taught me that you become ‘Gail with breast cancer’ and suffer a complete loss of your former identity. Yoga was perfect, offering the right balance of physical exercise and relaxation. To attend the classes and feel ‘normal’ was so uplifting. It was one of the few times when I felt completely relaxed and did not think about cancer.
For anyone embarking on the cooling treatment, I cannot emphasise enough the importance of having the cap correctly fitted with no air pockets or bumps. On my first chemotherapy session, I was introduced to Kerry the nurse who specialised in cap fitting. She would regularly spend several minutes with the two caps over her knee meticulously ironing out the lumps and bumps before helping me to get it securely fixed on my head.
Naturally, I was anxious about the drugs but also whether I would be able to withstand the arctic conditions that I had been forewarned about. The arctic blast was nowhere near as bad as I had anticipated and in fact I did ask the nurse to check if the machine was set correctly as I felt chilly rather than cold! As a runner, I have had to run home in freezing rain and wind and felt much colder than I did having the treatment.
On my fourth treatment, Kerry was on holiday, so my allotted nurse quickly fitted the cold cap, but it did not feel as cold as on previous occasions. I mentioned this to the nurse who dismissed my concerns and said everything was working correctly. In desperation, I put my hand on top of the cold cap and immediately felt the cooling on top of my head. It remained in that position for the next two and half hours! It was definitely worth it, I had another successful cooling treatment.
At the end of the treatment I had probably lost 20 per cent of my hair. In fairness, my hair has never been my crowning glory. I have fine hair and my hairdresser had suggested cutting it from shoulder length into a bob as he was concerned that shedding would make it look very thin. This proved to be a good decision and, with the help of hair fibres to cover thinning around the parting, I never felt the need to resort to my expensive wig. A great insurance policy.
Nobody wants to be dealt the cancer hand of cards, but you have to make the best of whatever life throws at you and having the opportunity to use the Paxman cold cap made my cancer journey so much more bearable. Not losing my hair was one less problem to deal with and in the words of my doctor… “WHAT HAVE YOU GOT TO LOSE? IF YOU DON’T TRY YOU WILL NEVER KNOW!”