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Psychology, Uncategorized

Hair loss and cancer identity

Every couple years my hair is long enough that I cut enough off to donate to programs that provide wigs to cancer patients. This past weekend was my most recent of these fairly significant hair cuts (ended up being 13 inches), and while I may be struggling a bit with hair that no longer fits in a pony tail I don’t really have anything to complain about. I am healthy enough that I have been able to donate my hair somewhere around six times so far. And, it always grows back. No matter if they cut it shorter than I wanted, it always grows back.

My hair, being thick and long, has always been part of my identity, which I think is part of the reason I like donating it, I like the idea of enabling someone else who has lost that part of their identity to address that loss in a way that they see fit. This meant that the article by Russon and Pilnick (2017) about the role of hair loss in cancer identity was very interesting to me.

Previous studies have indicated that hair loss by female cancer patients can be traumatic. This was confirmed by Russon and Pilnick who found that hair loss ended up with both a stigma (women with hair loss are labeled as cancer patients) and with challenges of nonconformity because women “normally” have hair. However, what was surprising to the researchers was that there can also be negative implications for women who don’t lose their hair because they now don’t conform with the norm of the cancer patient.

This latter finding is both not surprising to me and absolutely mind-blowing. It really indicates the power of norms (and conforming or non-conforming to those norms) on our psychological self. I can only imagine the thoughts that might run through my head if I was receiving chemotherapy for cancer and I didn’t lose my hair. Would I start to question if the treatment was working? Would I wonder if people believed me when I did tell them my diagnosis? Would I feel like I couldn’t hand around other cancer patients who had lost their hair because they might resent me or because I wouldn’t fit it?

Like so many things these days, the authors conclude that there needs to be better and wider education. Patients need to know what the impacts might be, not just the physical impacts of losing your hair, but also the emotional ones of what that loss may cause. They also need to know that not everyone loses their hair so that they don’t begin to doubt if they don’t. And the wider public needs to be aware of both hair loss and no hair loss so that they are less likely to stigmatize a woman who is already going through such a stressful experience. But I can’t help wonder, if it isn’t just education about these factors that needs to increase but education about acceptance and empathy, meeting people where they are. Wouldn’t that kind of education help everyone?

If you’re interested in donating your hair you can check out services that might be in your area. Apparently the demand is decreasing due to improvements in synthetic hair, which means that Pantene will not be continuing their donation program after December 2018. The Canadian Cancer Society is looking into other options to continue hair donations for the future.

Trusson, D. & Pilnick, A. (2017). The role of hair loss in cancer identity: Perceptions of chemotherapy-induced alopecia among women treated for early-stage breast cancer or ductal carcinoma in situ. Cancer Nursing, 40(2), E9-E16. doi: 10.1097/NCC.0000000000000373

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.


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