Updated: May 10
A couple of days ago I decided to post a picture of myself, digitally enhanced, admittedly, wearing my official ‘posh’ wig, on social media. Here’s why:
Ask most people what cancer treatment means and they’ll tell you sickness, fatigue and hair loss. That’s the stereotype, the poster campaign, and usually, the thing that most people fear when they hear they have cancer and will need chemotherapy. Apart from the not wanting to die thing, obviously. Hair loss, especially for women, is a massive mental battle - it taps into so many of our fears - our sense of identity, the outside representation of the person we want to show society, our femininity, our hair is literally our crowning glory.
For me, the prospect of losing my hair is less about the loss and more about not having people pity me or ask me directly about it. I’m a private person, I don’t give a damn what you think of my appearance, but I do want to control the message I give to society about who I am, and not have that choice taken away. Nor do I want strangers writing their own scripts about me, this is my story and I’ll tell it however I want to. Now I know me, and I know that there is no way on earth that I could tolerate a cold cap tightly round my head during chemotherapy, the sensory overload would be far too much. So I knew straight away that wouldn’t be an option. I have the greatest respect for women who do go through it, but you have to do what’s right for you. I also knew that headscarves wouldn’t be my thing either, far too fandangled for my non-nonsense style.
So wigs it is. Wigs and hats. Just so you know, I hate the word ‘wig’ with a passion. Darcey and I tried to come up with an alternative, but all of the fake hair words are stupid, so we gave up after ‘postiche’ and grudgingly accepted the W word into our lives. My plan is to wait for chemo to start (which should have been 2 weeks ago, but if you’re following my story you’ll know that there has been something of a hitch with my bonus second cancer diagnosis, so chemo is on hold for a bit) and then, when my hair does start falling out, usually day 13 of chemo or thereabouts, to shave the lot off and then cycle through my options of wig/hat/bald, depending on my need/mood/courage. I do tend to get to the “fuck this” point of any endeavour quite quickly in most areas of my life, so I am fully expecting that I will go bald and proud a lot of the time, but for now, I need to have options.
My first forays into wig purchasing didn't go well. I wanted to try some out, just to get used to the idea, so I ordered a couple of cheap wigs from Amazon. What arrived were not the beautifully sculpted, styled pixie cuts I aspired to, but two dead badgers in a cardboard envelope. No matter how I tried to revive them, by shaking, brushing, scrunching, backcombing or flattening, they still refused to bear any resemblance to the images on my Amazon order. In fact, they were so far from their marketing shots, that I wasn’t sure which one was which. I did try them on, or course I did, but I looked like a Dick Emery character in one, and Myra Hindley in a wind tunnel, in the other, To be honest, I was heartbroken. I would be a laughing stock. This was a total disaster and I hated, hated, hated everything about stupid fucking wigs and stupid fucking cancer.
My daughter came into the room and with the kindness borne of the purest heart, told me they looked OK, actually. They didn't, but she threw everything she had into making it better. We decided the styles were wrong, and that I should try a couple more, one longer and one shorter, thinner, and less like a hairy arse. A few days later they arrived and one of them, the shorter one, wasn’t actually that awful. I looked like Sally Webster in a 60s throwback night out, and it didn’t really suit me, but at least it looked human rather than forest-dweller. The other one was shoulder length and curly and seriously, even Shirley Temple would have looked like a absolute twat in it.
There was nothing else for it, I needed professional help. That sounds like I really wanted a wig. I didn’t, I still don’t, I hate the reasons why I need one, but I know I need that piece of armour in my arsenal, for the days when I need to look ‘normal’. The NHS do a scheme for cancer patients where they pay something in the region of £100-£120 towards a decent wig. How the scheme works varies in different areas, but in my neck of the woods there are a selection of local suppliers to choose from, and when you find the wig you want, the NHS send a voucher to the salon. If you want one that costs more, you pay the difference.
There were 2 near me, I googled them. I had already discarded one other place.called 'Here Wiggo'. Seriously? I love a pun as much as the next woman, but basing your business on cancer puns, was never going to be a winner. So of the two contenders, the first one, Oscars, was a tiny, dirty half shop next to what looked like a brothel in a part of town I’d never been to. The tiny window was packed full of wigs on faded polystyrene heads, that looked, from the style and decor, like they had been there since the 1970s. A small sign on the door declared that Oscars (no apostrophe) had been a specialist wig suppleirs (their typo, not mine) for over 30 years, and I’m thinking a fair bit longer than that. They didnt have a website, or email address, and there was no parking. In all, it looked like a front for something extremely sinister. Oscar, I decided, wore a stained velvet jacket, smoked a cheroot, spoke in a thin, reedy nasal voice and murdered people in his spare time. With hemlock probably.
The other salon looked like a normal high street hairdressers, not a wig specialist, but it looked modern and well kept, and their website said that they had recently started supplying wigs, and welcomed private consultations. They lacked the experience of Oscars, but I always prefer to try an upcoming business who are keen to succeed, over the established arrogance of the.market leader. Oh, and the whole 'not a serial killer' vibe was refreshing. There were photos of the staff, who all looked nice, and definitely not like serial killers, so I gave them a call and booked an appointment with Sue, for a few days time.
I went alone, for damage limitation really. I had no idea what to expect and wanted to just get the horrific experience done. In fact, what I got was an hour with the most lovely lady, where we looked at my hair, what shapes would suit me, some style books, and she showed me a couple of wigs she had in stock, to explain how they were made, adjusted and to let me feel the different types of hair. We shortlisted a few that we both thought might work, and picked the colours we both liked from a swatch. She was honest, professional, discreet, kind and knowledgeable, all of the qualities I most admire, and the whole experience really wasn’t so bad. We had a shortlist of 4 and she would order them in so I could try them all, in a few days time.
She rang a few days later to let me know they had arrived, and to arrange a time when I could go in after the salon had closed for a private session. We had to fit around my various medical appointments, but we managed to find a slot. She stayed late so I couls have some privacy.
I took Mr G with me as, this time, I thought I needed his unique style of honesty, and because he really wanted to come with me. I’m not sure if that was to stop me buying all 4, to make sure he didn't end up walking down the high street with a complete shocker, or because he knew I would need him there. A combination of all three, I expect. We decided to try them on in reverse order of popularity and sure enough, number 1 wasn't great. The quality and manufacture of a decent wig makes a massive difference to the cheaper ones, these ones really do look a lot more like real hair, but what I’m seeing in the mirror is Rod Stewart morphed with Jabba the Hut. My heart sinks, Sue is trying her best but even she’s making hmm noises. I turn to my husband but his eyes are looking down and he’s wearing a facemask, so I can’t see his expression. What I can see though, are his shoulders, shaking, up and down, as he tries vainly to suppress his mirth. Sue is horrified and tries all she can to politely save the situation, but I take control, punch him on the leg and tell him to shut up. He pulls himself together quickly and says he’s not quite sure if this one is quite right, and maybe we should move on. We move on.
Number 2 is too small and we all hate the colour, so that gets ditched. Number 3 is OK. It’s longer than my normal hair, but not unlike a style I had a couple of years ago. In fact, it looks a bit like my work ID photo, so it feels familiar, if a bit wonky. Sue fiddles with it and teases it in the magic way that only professional hairdressers can, and it’s starting to take shape into something halfway decent. Even Mr G makes positive grunts and holds my eye contact, so I know it can’t be too bad.
Number 4 is OK too, shorter and more like my normal hair (well, as normal as I can get. No one makes wigs like my real hair, unless there is a supplier out there who specialises in hair pieces for electrified sheep), but there’s something not right about it. Something wiggy. It’s too high, too bouffant, and despite Sue’s best efforts with a hairdryer and her magic fingers, she can only get it to barely OK.
I try number 3 on again and it just seems to fit, in lots of ways, so I know this is the one. As it’s a bit longer at the back, Sue tells me she can always trim it, if I decide I want it shorter at some point. I decide this is it. She offers to get more wigs in to try, but I’m happy with this one. I don't love it, I'm never going to love any wig, but this one and I, we can get along for a while. Sue talks me through wig care and cleaning (oh the skills I never thought I would need or ever wanted to have, thank you cancer, you absolute fucker), then we settle up and pay the difference (£50ish). She lets me take the wig home there and then, even though I haven't had my NHS voucher through yet. I guess no one’s going to con a free wig off the NHS, but her kindness touches me once again.
A Sense of Relief
We go home and I feel amazingly lifted. I have a wig that I don't hate, I was treated humanely and compassionately by a brilliant professional, and I know I will be able to face the world and not feel like a freak. It just might be OK.
Later I ask Mr G to pop out and buy a small plant and thank you card, as a gift for Sue, to let her know how important she was to me, and how much better she made a horrible situation. He comes home triumpant with a cactus in a pot. A nobbing cactus? As a thank you gift? To a hairdresser? Fucksake. But after consultation with my gal pals, we decided it's actually quite a cute cactus, and as a busy professional woman, she might actually appreciate a low-maintenance, if slightly less aesthetic object to maintain. I did, after all, I married one.
The next day I try the wig on again and take some photos of me wearing it. I mess around with Snapchat filters until I find one that makes me look ten years younger and 10 kilos lighter, and suddenly, I get the urge to post it on social media. Before I talk myself out of it, I remember the WomenEd mantra of #BeingTenPercentBraver. It’s the title of their new book, and I’m immensely proud to have written a chapter in it, about my experience as a School Business Leader and how finding the courage to blog and write about my profession gave me the confidence to find my voice and campaign for the subjects and issues about which I feel strongly - education funding, recognition of school support staff, and the power of women in leadership.
Out and Proud
If there were ever a time to live by my own rules, this was it. I knew I would be scared to wear the wig in public for the first time, so I decided I’d post the picture and then it would be out there, ahead of me, and I’d let my friends on Twitter and Facebook see the new me from the safety of my phone. I expected a few comments from my closest friends, but mainly I put it up there to prove to myself that I was brave enough to do this thing, to flip a V sign to cancer and let it know it wasn’t going to hold me back.
What actually happened was a flood of love and support from my friends, yes, but also from total strangers, liking and commenting on my photo, and sending me good wishes. My post has had over 1,200 likes on social media and over 55,000 people have seen it on Twitter. I guess my small outing turned into a bit of a party, and there’s definitely no going back now!
I’m truly overwhelmed by the love and support I have received since I decided to share my cancer journey. I know there are fellow cancer patients who gain support and encouragement from it, and that gives me enormous joy. But I write for me, to help me cope, and I know that now I have yet another cancer battle to deal with, I’ll need this outlet even more than ever. Please know that every word, every like, every comment is carried with me in my heart. Please know that although I am strong most of the time, there are days when I collapse in a heap and sob my heart out. And please know that you are the people who bring me back to life, who fuel my fire and who carry me when I stumble.
I am not ashamed of having cancer. I am not afraid to show you what it does. I want you to know, to understand, to experience it and to listen, so that you can help me cope with it, but also so that you can help others who may also be walking the same path, now or in the future. Thank you so much for walking with me.