Thursday, 24 July 2014

22. The pixie cut

“As short as possible,” I instructed my hairdresser yesterday. “Think Judi Dench.”

So here I am in all my film star glamour.

The after picture

The before picture

Of course it wasn’t quite as jolly as it sounds. However much my friends assure me that the new style suits me (they use kind words such as trendy and younger), this is not just a change of image because it’s summertime and I feel like it. This pixie cut is born of necessity, not desire, and the image change comes with a change of identity. I am inching ever closer to being a fully signed up cancer patient.

I wasn’t going to bother. I’d calculated that I’ve got about four or five weeks before baldness strikes. Why waste time and money on a cut that is literally going to go down the drain in a month’s time?

Waste?! I hear you cry, as befits the L'Oreal generation. Nonsense! You're worth it! But I can't help it. Blame my prudent Dutch roots.

My fantastic hairdresser, who I’ve visited faithfully ever since my 16 year old son was in his pram, has long given up hope that I come to his salon more than four times a year. He only has himself to blame. His cuts are so good that they last for months, which suits me nicely, as I usually have half a dozen better things to do than sit in his chair, lovely though it is to see him. But my previous cut was in March, pre-diagnosis, so he must have been wondering whether I'd abandoned him.

Just as well we were on our own in the salon (first appointment of the day), because as soon as I saw him I burst into tears. I'd been brewing those tears on my bike. In fact I’d spent the ride down Clapham High Street thinking up suitable titles for this blog post. Howling at the Hairdresser? Crying over the Crew Cut? Sobbing under the Scissors? Blubbering beneath the Blow Dryer? Any of these would do.

It suddenly occurred to me, cycling along, that this would have been the time when I needed a friend to come with me. They keep offering, my lovely friends, but I am so bloody independent, I don't even recognise when I need them.

(Yes, well spotted, that's a swear word. It's time for swear words. I never swear, and I'm aware of being the reasonably respected Dr Irene Tuffrey-Wijne and a role model for my (hopefully non-swearing) children, but I'm stripping those layers. I'm just Irene now.)

“Breast cancer,” I spluttered before my hairdresser could ask The ususal? “Chemotherapy. Hair will fall out.”

Turns out I didn't need to bring a friend after all, because there he was instead. He got me a cup of coffee and locked the door to other customers.

I had come to his salon, I explained, because suddenly I couldn’t bear it any longer. The thought of my best-before hair spending another month growing past anything resembling a shape. The heat. Bad enough having a hot chest (it’s back to Sock Bra today) without also having a hot head. These are decent, familiar, must-go-to-the-hairdresser reasons.

But the real reason for my pixie cut is that going straight from shoulder-length to bald doesn’t seem the brightest of ideas.

There is a gradual transition I feel I must make, from blow-dried fullness to bare baldness. It needs something in-between.

I can't cope with the thought of all those long hairs clogging up the drainpipe.

My plan is to shave it all off at the first sign of my hair flying the nest, and that seems easier to execute if it’s short.

So with the story told and the coffee finished, the hairdresser set to work.

He was rather pleased with the result. (Or so it seemed. He may just be an excellent actor.) “You’ll be keeping it like this next year!” he said, encouragingly.

My daughters (and Bear) screamed.

The older one because it’s just too much to get used to - although her friend said, after due consideration, “I like it like this,” bless her. The younger one because it is well known that 11 year olds do not want mum to look any different from yesterday.

My son returned home from the hairdresser himself, and with a boy's instinct for winning, he decreed that his is shorter than mine. His lighthearted, shrug-of-the-shoulders dismissal (You think that's a haircut? THIS is a haircut!) was perhaps the most helpful response so far.

I am taking a deep breath, so that I can do the jokes that will, I suspect, wear pretty thin over the coming months.

Think of all the money I am saving on shampoos and conditioners and hair mousse!
And on going to the hairdresser!
And the time saved! No more blow drying! Hurray!


Of course there is some truth in these silver linings. I went swimming in the afternoon and it was indeed a case of Wash & Go, which was rather brilliant.

I also know that fundamentally, I am not that bothered about my impending hair loss. I have never felt defined by my appearance. People will just have to get used to it.

I will get used to it. Still, I have to swallow hard.

The thing is, now I can no longer hide the fact that there is something fundamentally different about me.

Putting my portrait on this blog and on FaceBook at least ensures that I don't have to catch people (and their emotions) when they see me for the first time after The Image Change, but still, I have to get over the hurdle of marching out there and facing the world looking different. That will, of course, only get worse when my hair falls out.

Perhaps my breast care nurse was right when she predicted that shaving my head will be more difficult than I anticipate, however gung-ho I feel about it now.

"It will be emotional," she said. "It will be, even if you think it won't be."

A few weeks ago, I would have thought that blog posts about crew cuts and head shaves and hair loss could be quite humorous. Of course I’ll keep smiling (because what else can you do?), and of course there will be some genuine laughter along the way.

(My younger daughter had us in stitches last week, when we talked about my impending baldness. She suddenly paraphrased a poem she had learned at school, announcing with great aplomb: I was old then and careless, my head, it was hairless.)

But the reason for my haircut is decidedly un-funny. My tears at the hairdresser's were not so much for the loss of my hair but for the loss of my identity as a healthy woman and the relentless onslaught of cancer-related challenges.

So, having half-promised the girls that they can have an afternoon's fun shaving my head when the time comes (“Really? In any way we like? Even zigzags? Yippee!”), I now suspect that I may well need to take up my hairdresser’s offer to do the shaving for me.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “We’ll look after you all the way. Here is my mobile number. I'll do anything you need. I'll come to your house if you want me to.”

In return for such kindness, let me advertise his salon. It’s called Willis B. Ask for Andrew, the owner. He is the best.

Selfie with Andrew


  1. I like the new hair cut! I have read through your blogs and it gripped me so much- echoes of friends experiences who have been on the breast cancer journey and of our experiences of my mother-in-law's ovarian cancer.I was stuck by the Owl stories- when my daughter was in ICU for 3 months, so many patients had a cuddly toy to rest their hands on. I have learned so much from what you are sharing and the experiences of talking in response to the "How are you" questions" also rang bells for me.I will be thinking of you as you go through the chemo.Ginger helped my mun-in-law with the nausea.

  2. Hello Jan, what lovely feedback! Thank you. I am glad to hear that my tales of woe and wonder resonate with others too. Interesting about the patients in ICU! And yes, ginger was good for my pregnancy nausea so I am stocking up on the ginger biscuits!