Sherry's Cancer FAQ
(I don't profess to be an expert on the subject, but I know that sometimes it's helpful to get info from someone who's "been there, done that." So I offer this in case it might be helpful to someone.)

Sherry's Cancer FAQ


Cancer in general Chemo Hair loss Tips (more to be added later)

Cancer in general

What are the symptoms of cancer?
That varies a great deal on the type of cancer. When I was young, I remember learning about "the 7 warning signs of cancer," which included things like change in bowel or bladder habits, change in a wart or mole, lump or thickening in the breast or elsewhere, etc. But these days, that list seems to have expanded to more than 7. You can easily find info about the subject on the Internet (e.g., signs and symptoms on the ACS site).

A key thing is to know your own body, and if anything seems to be odd or not normal to you, get it checked.

How did you find out you had cancer?
I didn't really notice any symptoms. That's not uncommon with ovarian cancer, like I had, because the symptoms (like bloating) are common, somewhat vague, and can mean any number of things. (Here's an article on ovarian cancer symptoms from the ACS site.)

I was lucky, because my gynecologist noticed a cyst on my ovary during a routine exam. It didn't appear to be cancer (and actually, it probably wasn't, at the time), but we started watching it. So, we saw when it started to grow, decided I needed surgery, and found the cancer in the surgery.

Does everyone with cancer have to get chemo and radiation?
No, that depends on the type, stage, and grade of the cancer. My type was ovarian, stage 1a. If it had been grade 1, like they first thought, I would not have needed chemo at all. I only needed chemo because the 2nd opinion determined it was grade 2. I didn't get radiation at all, because they don't usually do that for ovarian, although they may do it for other types of cancers.


Was getting chemo difficult? What was it like?
For me, it wasn't bad at all. A friend suggested it was "like having a cup of coffee" (knowing, of course, that I don't like coffee!)

I had some pills to take before and for a few days after the chemo. These were mainly anti-nausea pills, and they worked! I never felt nauseated. The chemo itself was basically getting an IV drip in my arm for about 5 hours. I'd leave feeling fine, would still feel fine the next day when I had to come in for a shot (Neulasta, helps white blood cell counts). The next day I'd start feeling a bit less fine, and would gradually get worse for a couple more days. This wasn't anything really specific, just a general achiness and lack of energy.

About a week after the chemo I'd gradually start to feel better each day. By the third week I'd be feeling just fine, and then it would be time to start the process all over again. I had to go through the process 3 times. I thought it got easier each time, but possibly this was just because I was knowing what to expect.

Of course, people are different, cancers are different, and there are different chemo treatments. Other people's experiences might well be different from mine.

How could you tolerate sitting in a chair getting an IV for so long?
Well, for one thing, they have really comfy reclining chairs. It's very easy to take a nap (I think some of the stuff they put in the drip makes you sleepy). I'd bring along some reading material, my iPod, etc. to keep me entertained while I was awake. Also, it's easy enough to get up and move around if you need to (like to go to the bathroom); the IV machine can be unplugged from the wall and will run on battery power while you roll it around.
Does everyone lose their hair with chemo?
No, not all chemo drugs cause hair loss. Many do. Mine did.

Hair Loss

When did you start losing your hair?
It was about 2 weeks after the first chemo. They had told me it would happen "around the time of the 2nd chemo," which made me wonder if it happened as a result of the first chemo, or if it was the 2nd one that sent it over the edge. I started losing my hair before the 2nd chemo, so that answered that question.
How did it fall out?
I first noticed it in the shower when I was washing my hair. When I pulled my hand away from my head, there was a lot of hair in it. From that time on, every time I washed my hair, or combed it, or ran my fingers through it, more hair would come out. But it wasn't coming out in clumps, leaving bald patches on my head--it was just thinning. It was kind of like when a cat is shedding. I would often stand over the garbage can and run my hands through my hair, just to collect some of the hair and reduce the amount that dropped on the floor.
What did you do while it was falling out?
I had long hair before all this started. The day after my first chemo, I cut it short (about chin-length), figuring that would look less bad as it fell out. (I did donate the hair I cut off.)

Once it started falling out, it tooks several days before it became obvious that my hair was thinning, so I didn't do anything special at first. It's interesting how much hair you can lose before it becomes apparent. I think I read somewhere that you can lose something like 50% of your hair and it will still look pretty normal.

When my hair started to look thin, at first it showed mainly around the front hairline, so it would look OK with a hat.

After several more days it was looking thin even with a hat. That's when I started wearing wigs or scarves/turbans whenever I went out in public.

After 2 weeks I thought it was looking really pathetic; that's when I decided to just shave my head and get rid of it.

Did you lose ALL your hair?
That question could be interpreted (and answered) 2 ways. The answer to one is yes, I lost the hair on all parts of my body, including eyebrows, eyelashes, legs, armpits, etc.

The other part is no, I never lost all of my hair, but I believe that's because I only had 3 chemos; I've heard that it's usually after the 4th chemo that one loses the last of one's hair. I did go bald because I shaved my head. But I actually still had some active hairs on my head. There were just a very few per square inch, but they kept growing.

How did you handle it when it was gone?
In terms of presentation, I stuck with the scarves/turbans and wigs all the time. Since I'm involved in a lot of Middle Eastern stuff, the scarves and turbans worked very well.

I did consider getting a henna design on my bald head, but that didn't happen.

About a month after my last chemo, the few remaining "old" hairs on my head were maybe 1/2 inch long and it was starting to look pretty weird, so I shaved my head once again. I figured that'd give the new hair a more even start with the old hair.

In terms of care, I found that my scalp was somewhat dry and itchy, so I put mosturizer on it, much like I did my face.

When did your hair start coming back?
It was about 5 to 6 weeks after my last chemo before my new hair started growing in.
How did it come back?
When it did start growing back, it came in a darker brown than it had been, with more gray (I'm sure!) Also, it was very soft. And when it got long enough, it became apparent it was also coming in curly/wavy. My old hair was more straight.

Something that might be considered odd happened a while after the hair started regrowing. Maybe 5-6 months later, I started losing a lot of eyelash and eyebrow hairs... again. Although I didn't totally lose them, my eyelashes and eyebrows did get rather thin... again. I wasn't totally surprised at this, however. It kind of makes sense when you consider that if all the hairs start growing at the same time, they're probably all going to stop growing (and fall out) around the same time also. As of this writing, I haven't had a chance to observe if this will happen a second time, but in any case, I figure it'll randomize itself back to normal at some point.

How did you handle it when it was growing back?
In terms of care, I was very gentle with it. When it first started coming back, I washed my head with a body wash that was also a shampoo. Once it got long enough to wash it like hair, I made a point to use a fairly gentle 2-in-1 shampoo and conditioner to minimize the amount of "stuff" I had to do with it. I waited quite a while before I put any color on it.

For going out in public, I stuck with the wigs or scarves for a while, and added hats to the mix after the hair became visible enough.

I didn't actually go out in public with it until it was about an inch long, maybe longer. That was about 3 months after it started growing back. I might have exposed it earlier, but it was a cold winter! I was surprised how cold your head can get when it doesn't have much hair to cover it.


What tips do you have for someone diagnosed with cancer?
First, make sure you know you have a good support system. Understand that this can include more than just family and friends. In addition to organizations such as the American Cancer Society, health insurance plans as well as hospitals and cancer centers often also provide support in various forms. I'm not trying to suggest you'll need it all, but it's really good just to know that it's there in case you do need it. My experience has been that, for practical information, the best support is from someone who's had a similar experience; for emotional support, it's friends and family.

Secondly, investigate various organizations that will give stuff away to help cancer patients. Take advantage of it when it's appropriate for you (sometimes they depend on what kind of cancer you have, or what kind of treatment). The best way to find out about these things is probably to ask someone who's had the same kind of cancer. Here are the ones I know about:

Do you have any tips for someone having chemo?
First, take drugs as directed. This is really a second-hand tip. A friend of a friend (foaf) had cancer, followed the regimen for the first round of chemo, and decided it wasn't bad at all, so she decided (because the drugs can be pretty expensive) she didn't need all the drugs for the second round... and guess what? She got really sick.

Second, make a point of doing things that give you pleasure. This is another second-hand tip, but it's one that stuck in my brain. If you like going to the beach, do it. This is definitely the time to make time for yourself.

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