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From Bald Spot to Sweet Spot: A Woman’s Triumph Over Cancer

From Bald Spot to Sweet Spot: A Woman’s Triumph Over Cancer
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By Steve Weinstein

At least as far back as Samson, a full head of hair has been associated with virility, strength and power. But while aging men may be proud of a full head of hair, male pattern baldness is no shame either.

For women, hair loss is far more fraught. As two British psychologists noted in a 2005 paper, hair is essential to a woman’s identity. Whereas a man’s bald pate is considered sexy, femininity, sexuality, attractiveness and even a woman’s personality are totally intertwined with her hair.

When a woman’s hair thins, it’s bad enough without losing all of it. That’s what happened to Wendy (who asked that her name be changed for privacy). She has, like many women, been suffering from thinning hair ever since menopause. But in her case, the loss was much more dramatic.

It got so bad that every few days, she was running to her hairdresser, for a female version of a comb over and a spray to darken the remaining hair. “When I slept, the spray would get all over the pillowcase,” Wendy said. “When I used to go on vacation, it was hell.”

She was terrified that sweat, water or even a gust of strong wind would uncover her attempt at deception. Her dermatologist could only recommend Rogaine, which didn’t help much. That was how things stood until, in 2007, the other shoe dropped: “I got breast cancer. Although it was caught early, the chemo and radiation were strong because I decided on an aggressive therapy. Guys have the option of shaving their heads. When I see a man with some hair and the rest bald, I think, ‘You might as well go all the way.’ Women can’t do that.”

Wendy’s previously thinning hair was no preparation for the devastating impact of losing all of her hair. One study that followed women who lost their hair after chemotherapy found that for many of them, that was more difficult to deal with than even the loss of a breast.

While it’s easy to pooh-pooh such a reaction as being overly dramatic, consider for a moment the importance society places on a woman’s hair. When Martin Luther called hair “the richest ornament of women,” he was expressing a view as true now as it was 500 years ago.

Aside from a just-announced expensive and still-experimental treatment that involves freezing their scalps, women in the same circumstances faced three options: a wig, and let’s face it, a wig always looks like a wig; making a bold statement by going full-on bald and look like Sinead O’Connor or a post-war French collaborator; or the fallback super wide-brimmed floppy fedora trimmed with a four-foot scarf, a real “vintage” look.

Except that the last thing a woman wants to feel is “vintage.” Wendy tried the wig route, but “it never felt natural to me. You could see it wasn’t my hair.” As for transplants, that’s just taking hair in strips from one area to cover another — robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Speaking of St. Paul, “1 Corinthians,” he wrote, “If a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her. For her hair is given to her for a covering.” Is it any wonder Wendy was in despair?

Finally, her hairdresser recommended Blair Lawhead, a hair-replacement specialist who operates out of a tiny room on the ground floor of an apartment building in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. After years of working and watching in others’ salons, Lawhead devised an alternative to plugs and rugs: a porous matrix of human hair that matches color and is molded to a person’s skull. Every month or so, clients return for a cleaning, re-affixing and styling. The “system” must be replaced every year or so.

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It took a full year for Wendy and her husband (who, she noted, has been “completely supportive” through all of her travails) finally to visit Blair’s salon. “She and her husband just watched,” Blair recalled. “I noticed that virtually none of her hair had grown back from the chemo, just a few wisps highlighted by the comb over.”

Nearly all of Blair’s clients are men who never cottoned to the Yul Brynner look. Some, like Adam, an actor, do it for professional reasons. Adam used to shave his head before auditions. He now has not only moved from skinhead roles to leading men, but, he said, “I’m dating girls who wouldn’t give me the time of day before.” But Lawhead noted that many men believe that a full head of hair gives older men a sense of confidence because they believe it helps them compete in a world where, like it or not, a full of head of hair gives the impression of youthful vigor.

As for Wendy, at 72, she radiates energy and good feeling remarkable at any age. If her infectious enthusiasm and joie de vivre were dearly bought, like the practiced long-distance runner, she chooses to look ahead, never behind her.

Best of all, she can let her hair be as messy as she wants without worrying about exposing scalp. The first weekend after she got her system, she and her husband went to Lake George in the Thousand Lakes region of Upstate New York, where she ran into the wind instead of to her hairdresser. So far the cancer is in complete remission. Although she has to continue taking medication for three more years, after the 10-year mark, she’s official cancer free.

Understandably, “free” is a word Wendy uses a lot in conversation: “I just want to be free. I happen to look good in hats, but now I wear them because I want to. I feel like I have a new life.”

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Steve Weinstein
Steve Weinstein is a journalist who had interned at the Sunday Times of London and has written for New York Magazine, The International Herald Tribune, The Wall Street Journal (online), CNBC.com and The Village Voice among others. He has edited Crain's New York Business, Edge Media Network, the New York Blade and New York Press, and authored The Q Guide to Fire Island (Alyson, 2007). He lives in Midtown Manhattan with two Staffordshire pit bulls.