Cancer diagnosis and treatment can change almost every aspect of someone’s life, including financial, relational, and personal matters. Experiencing hair loss that sometimes comes with treatment adds to the list of changes patients must cope with, eliciting various reactions and ways to cope.
Mental health clinicians at Loma Linda University’s Cancer Center and Behavioral Medicine Center (BMC) MEND Program are experts in helping patients navigate the impact of hair loss and how support systems can play a role in accompanying patients through the journey.
Normalizing the grief that comes with hair loss is something I wish I saw more often.Ashley Park
Hair loss may impact people’s self-image and sense of identity, says Ashley Park, DMFT, AMFT, a clinical therapist at the BMC who works with patients facing chronic illness through the MEND program.
“‘I don’t know who I am when I look in the mirror’ is something I’ve heard from patients before, or ‘I used to have long, flowy hair but now look at it,’” Park says.
Physical appearance plays a role in the construction of one’s self-identity, Park says, so unwanted changes in that appearance can shake up the way someone views themselves and their self-esteem.
Loss of hair also removes the option of retaining privacy around a patient’s illness that they may have wished to preserve, Park says. Because hair loss is often noticeable, patients lose the choice of whether or not to disclose their health status to family, friends, and strangers.
“Patients have told me, ‘I can cover it up, but people look. I can wear a wig, but people will know.’” Park says. “They feel like even with a wig, hat, or scarf, people know they have cancer even when it’s not their choice to share that.”
Many are just yearning for normalcy.Gina Morales
Moreover, patients may feel like losing their hair is a constant reminder of the disease, says Gina Morales, LCSW, a clinical social worker at LLU Cancer Center.
“Everything about illness and cancer is adjusting to a new life, routine, and expectations,” Morales says. “Many are just yearning for normalcy. But, because hair loss is visible, it can feel like another reminder that things aren’t the normal they once knew.”
Often, patients’ support systems have good intentions when supporting loved ones going through hair loss, but Morales says the outcomes of their actions or words may negatively impact the person they’re trying to help.
Members of a patient’s support system may offer words of encouragement, Morales says, such as: “You’re a fighter,” “you got this,” “your hair will grow back,” “you’ll get better,” or “it’s just temporary.” But she says this type of phrasing tends to come off as dismissive and invalidating to people experiencing hair loss, placing pressure to act positively when their reality is complex, constant, and emotional.
Just sitting with someone and assuring them ‘It’s okay to feel what you feel’ can make a world of difference.Ashley Park
Consequentially, one of the main aspects of care that Park and Morales provide patients with cancer experiencing hair loss is normalizing their emotions. They encourage patients’ support systems to offer this form of support too.
“It’s important to listen and see someone for who they are and whatever it is they’re feeling as they move through their hair loss experience,” Park says. “We can let them know that it’s okay to feel emotions like sadness, anger, grief, and loss.”
Even if the cancer treatment is over, Park says patients’ hair may grow back differently; this may present another phase of adjustment for survivors to face. However, support systems can continue to support their loved ones through this, too, she says.
For patients with cancer experiencing hair loss, talking to someone outside of the familial support system or friend group can also prove helpful and offer additional safe space, Park and Morales say.
“Normalizing the grief that comes with hair loss is something I wish I saw more often than toxic positivity, which isn’t helpful to someone experiencing the hair loss first-hand,” Park says. “People may not know what to say or how to say it, but just sitting with someone and assuring them ‘It’s okay to feel what you feel’ can make a world of difference.”
To help patients navigate these challenges, Loma Linda University Cancer Center works with the Behavioral Medicine Center MEND Program to provide individuals with cancer personalized, whole-person care through integrative mental and behavioral health services. To learn more about all of the resources offered to cancer patients at the center, visit lluh.org/cancer-center or call 1-800-782-2623.