Brunswick News (GA)
Aug. 20--Sharon Hanson has been battling ovarian cancer for nearly four years, and though she is counteracting some effects of the illness by exercising and singing in a church choir, a major surgery and chemotherapy hurt her appearance and confidence.
"I have lost my hair twice, my eyebrows and my eyelashes," said the St. Simons Island resident, as she reviewed her journey with cancer remission and recurrence. She is now taking a drug that allows her hair to regrow, as well as her eyelashes. It has slowly allowed her to wean herself off her bandana, baseball cap and wig -- items that have helped bolster her self-esteem.
"You'll (always) feel better if you like the way you look and (losing your hair) does take away what you think makes you look pretty. But I never felt like I should go into hiding. I'd go to the gym without a bandana on and there were times when I was bald headed that I would go to the beach and take off my hat," said Hanson, who was a personal trainer and aerobics instructor for St. Simons Health Club.
"It takes confidence and not feeling like you're weird. I have a Bible verse taped to my mirror that says 'the king is enthralled with your beauty' and I started thinking it's more important to be beautiful on the inside rather than be upset with the beauty on the outside. You're just in this place in you're life (right now), so find what makes you feel comfortable, accept it and make adjustments."
And though a reaction to chemotherapy did little to destroy her happiness, hair loss is something that both men and women often confront during cancer treatments.
Chemotherapy is a systemic therapy that in some cases is delivered by mouth but usually is given intravenously and can be very effective against cancer, said Dr. Bruce G. Tripp, a board-certified radiation oncologist at Southeast Georgia Physician Associates-Radiation Oncology.
"(It) targets rapidly growing cancer cells, resulting in damage or death to the cells. While there can be some damage to the slow growing normal tissues exposed to cancer treatments, the damage is quickly repaired by the body and usually goes unnoticed," Tripp said. "Hair loss occurs because hair follicles are some of the fastest growing cells in the body, and as the cancer treatment does its work against cancer cells, it also destroys hair cells."
But why hair loss occurs has something to do with how the drug was designed, said Shannon Caauwe, an oncology nurse and nurse manager for Southeast Georgia Health System Cancer Care Centers.
"Since chemotherapy cannot tell the difference between rapidly growing healthy cells and rapidly growing cancer cells, it destroys both, especially the rapidly growing cells of hair follicles," Caauwe said. "Not all chemotherapy drugs cause hair loss, but can cause noticeable hair thinning."
Tripp says hair loss, which can be gradual or dramatic, is generally temporary and starts within a few weeks of starting chemotherapy or radiation treatments to the scalp. However, it depends on the type of chemotherapy and the dose being administered, Caauwe added.
"Hair loss can be seen anywhere between one and three weeks after the start of treatment. Hair may come out quickly in handfuls or gradually. Eyelashes, eyebrows, and other body hair is affected by chemotherapy, as well," Caauwe said.
For most people like Hanson, shaving your head or cutting your hair very short can minimize the trauma of losing hair during treatment. But Caauwe says it's important for cancer patients to be in control and make decisions based on personal preference.
"A cancer diagnosis itself is devastating, but the hair loss resulting from treatment can be seen by some patients as an announcement to the world that they have cancer. Some patients just are not ready for questions their appearance may elicit, and some do not want others feeling sorry for them," Caauwe said. "Many times it is not as much about losing the hair as it is about the disease itself."
Head coverings such as turbans, wigs, scarves and hats are among ways to cope, Caauwe said.
"Keeping the skin of the scalp clean and dry during treatment is essential. The skin of the scalp is sensitive and needs extra protection, (especially) from the sun (and) ... in the colder months," Caauwe said.
Caauwe says patients should not use permanents, hair dyes, blow dryers or hot irons as they prepare and enter treatment. This can damage the hair follicles before they have a chance to regrow.
After treatment concludes, hair growth will be gradual and may be a different color and/or texture when it grows back, as Hanson has experienced. And it's important for patients to be prepared for this change, too, Caauwe added.
For family members and friends of those affected by cancer, Caauwe says providing support, an ear to listen, and sometimes, a shoulder to cry on are some of the best ways to help patients cope.
Kelley Spaeder, community manager for the American Cancer Society, agrees.
"Hundreds of women in our area will be diagnosed with cancer this year, many of whom will not only face the physical effects of the disease itself, but also the psychological toll of treatment and recovery. Changes in appearance, from complexion and skin sensitivity to hair loss or mastectomy, can be devastating to a woman with cancer," Spaeder said.
"(Support) helps improve morale and gives women with all forms of cancer back some control, confidence and hope during a very difficult time."
Adds Caauwe: "Letting them know they are supported and loved, hair or no hair, makes a difference," said.
-- Reporter Brittany Tate writes about lifestyle topics. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Facebook or at 265-8320, ext. 317.
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