‘I Couldn’t Believe I Was Looking At Myself’: Two Irish Women On Beating Cancer, But Losing Their Hair

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Broadcaster Georgie Crawford, 32, has experimented with scarves, turbans and wigs since losing her hair to breast cancer

“I was diagnosed in October 2017, just seven months after having my first baby. I’d been feeling really tired, I’d told my mum a few times that I didn’t quite feel like myself. I felt like I looked different. My nails were breaking, my hair was frizzy, there were a few alarm bells but I just put it down to being a tired, first time mum. I found the lump in my chest in the middle of the night and my husband and I panicked. I went straight to the GP the following morning and was sent for scans and a biopsy. I was told I had breast cancer the following week.

The week after I was diagnosed I was sent for surgery to have the cancer removed, but after the first surgery my margins weren’t clear enough so I had a second two weeks later and thankfully it all went well. I met with an oncologist who told me I’d need 22 weeks of chemotherapy and four weeks of radiotherapy. I was told I would definitely lose my hair, just after my second chemo session, so I knew it would fall sometime around the first week in January.

I hoped I wouldn’t lose my hair, but once I was told I would, I tried to deal with it practically. My husband Jamie reminded me everyday that it was only temporary, that it would grow back. And I
kept repeating to myself that it was a small price to pay for my life. Nothing else matters to me but my family, so if I had to be without hair in order to become a healthy mum again, that’s what I was going to do. I was very focused on the positives. I’d found my cancer early, it had been removed, this was just something I had to do in order to go back to normal long term.

I was shocked by how fast it fell out. It came out in chunks just after Christmas. I was stunned looking in the mirror for the first few weeks. I couldn’t believe I was looking at myself, that I’d become a cancer patient in my 30s. I cried a lot, I let it all out every day, but tried to pick myself up and get out for walks with my mum and my baby.

I found losing my eyebrows and eyelashes even tougher. They fell about a month later. It was hard to draw on my eyebrows everyday and stick on lashes. But you adjust and move on and I was just so grateful my cancer had been removed. I can’t believe I ever gave out about having a bad hair day. My hair was my thing. I always had big hair, I loved curling it and trying out new styles. So in many ways my heart was broken. I stare at people in shops or online and just think they are so lucky to have it. But I’ll get back into the hairdressers someday. I’ll sit down with a magazine, sipping on a hot tea and just think ‘thank god, life is wonderful’. Cancer really makes you appreciate the most simple things in life.

I knew a wig was the best option for me. I wear it every day and it has been the most amazing, comforting thing for me through this journey. It would be easy to ‘hate’ it, but it’s made me feel normal and feel like myself again, so I’m just thankful to have it. My hair is growing back now and I’m just loving it. The first day my baby climbed onto my lap and was able to get a good grip of it was a glorious, yet painful moment.

I finished radiotherapy in July and I’m just trying to build myself back up again, psychically and mentally. We’re taking a big family holiday to the US before I go back to work in September. It will take my body about two years to recover and I’m about to start a new drug. We’ve been forced to put baby number two on hold for a couple of years so I’m just enjoying my beautiful daughter and the precious moments we have together.”

Secondary school teacher Emma Cassidy says hair loss was one of the hardest parts of her breast cancer experience. She’s been sharing her story on Instagram

“When I was diagnosed, I had just turned 30. Two months before, I was in Vegas celebrating my birthday with my friends and family and I felt really good, really healthy and physically I was in good shape. Then a month before, I felt really tired and I noticed a difference in my skin and my hair. I went to my doctor and got an appointment for the breast clinic in Beaumont. I had tests and a week later I was called in with my mam. My scans were up on the screen and the doctor just kept saying the word abnormality. I still hadn’t copped what was about to happen. My mam asked ‘Does that mean those areas are cancerous?’ and he said ‘Yes’.

Even with all the biopsies I’d had done, never in my wildest dreams did I think this was going to happen to me; that at 30, this was going to be something that was on the cards for me. When he was explaining it, it kinda felt like a scene in a movie where everything just starts to fade. A week later I met my surgeon and we made the decision that I was going to have a bilateral mastectomy and a delayed reconstruction. It was 100 percent my choice and the right one for me. I had chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

I finished with chemo just before Christmas, so it was the best Christmas present I ever had in my life. I learned pretty quickly I was going to lose my hair; my nurse told me on the second appointment. I was glad that I knew because then I could better prepare myself. As the chemo was coming closer, I decided to get a wig because my hair was such a huge part of my identity. Even since I was a child. I always had this mad, curly blonde hair. My hair was always my stand out feature; the thing people would recognise me by.

I went into the Hair Club in Donnybrook before I started treatment and picked a lovely blonde wig. The girls in the shop were lovely. The day before my chemo I decided to have my head shaved before my hair fell out, so my good friend Craig came over and did it in the comfort of my own home. I didn’t cry at that point but it was a surreal moment. I got fitted for the wig that day, and we went out and we had food and I wasn’t really thinking about the full scale of what had happened. I came home and I took off the wig and as I was looking in the mirror I just didn’t recognise myself. It was like looking at a stranger. I just broke down in tears and they didn’t stop. I was beyond devastated.

Losing my hair was the one experience that really, really affected me. Some people find that hard to grasp because hair grows, and I know that, but as a women it’s so ingrained in you that your hair is such a part of you. The wig for me was a massive lifeline. I felt really glamorous when I had it on, I could style it, I could curl it, it was really long. It felt like another extension of me. As my treatment was finishing, my hair started to grow back a bit and it was the most exciting feeling in the world. I was like a kid, I’d see a bit of stubble coming in and I’d be so excited to show people. It just symbolised that my body was healing.

Even before I had lost the hair I was Googling everything and I found this salon in Belfast called Joyce Wells Hair And Beauty that specialised in hair in recovery. It said you needed to have just one inch of hair and be six months out of chemo, and I couldn’t believe the before and after photos. I emailed and said I will be seeing you in June 2018! Joyce messaged me back and was so lovely – it was like the light at the end of the tunnel. It took 11 hours.

My mam’s face when she saw me; I’ll never forget it. Her jaw dropped. She was beaming. She kept saying ‘It’s like you. It’s like looking at you again.’ It felt like Joyce had given me part of myself back. Now I still have those extensions in and I’m going back to get them maintained, and I can see peeping through the bits of hair getting longer and longer, and it’s so exciting. I feel like I just appreciate it so much more. My relationship with my hair has changed. I feel so blessed that it’s growing again.”

Emma is an ambassador for Breast Cancer Ireland and supports their Breast Health Education and Awareness programme for both teachers and Transition Year students nationwide, which is sponsored by Cornmarket Group Financial Services Ltd.