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“Shaving the Head of a Cancer Patient” – Have you read it?

Shutterstock | Mudvayne
Shutterstock | Mudvayne

Scrubs contributor Theresa Brown wrote a powerful article in The New York Times that, since its publication in 2009, has resonated like crazy with nurses…especially those who have dealt directly with cancer patients at work. As we reflect on and honor those with breast cancer this month, we wanted to look back at this important story.

Here are some excerpts from the article:

“It was a slow day on the floor and my patient, whose hair was falling out from chemo, had just asked me to shave his head.

“Sure,” I said, even though, despite the two years plus I’ve spent in oncology nursing, I had yet to shave anyone’s head.

Some cancer patients find the process of waiting for their hair to fall out intolerable. Loose hairs fall into their eyes when they’re awake and tickle their faces while they sleep. During showers they feel awash in hair. At some point all the loose strands start to drive them crazy, and that’s when patients ask the nurse for a shave.”

She continues…

“Patients worry a lot about losing their hair, but we nurses don’t think about baldness much. We’re so used to our hairless patients that we accept it as normal. Cancer drugs target quickly dividing cells, and that includes the cells in hair follicles. Patients tend to lose their hair 10 to 14 days after the start of chemo. It can take several weeks for it to grow back, but by that time they’re probably getting more chemo, so they end up being bald for a long time.”

Then, she gets to the heart of the issue for patients…

“The patient today was a big guy, not overweight, just solid, in his mid-50s, with a boyish smile and a sly sarcastic streak that made me laugh. My friend Christi said she had shaved plenty of heads and offered instruction as well as moral support.

Shaving this patient’s head was probably as good as it gets for a first time. His wife insisted on taking pictures and tried to get me to leave him with a mohawk.

Afterward his wife asked if we could rustle up a hat for him, but really he didn’t need one — being bald suited him. Once I’d shaved his head and saw how he looked, the whole idea of hair seemed superfluous.

I shared with him this arch comment from Liz Tilberis, the former editor of British Vogue, who died at 51 of ovarian cancer: “Once you’ve had chemotherapy,” she had said, “there’s no such thing as a bad hair day.””

And concludes with this powerful story…

“The next day, though, a different patient — this time a woman — asked me to get out the electric razor. She reminded me a bit of myself. She was roughly my age, 44, and had an 11-year-old daughter, whereas my twin daughters are 10.

I picked up a new blade for the clippers and grabbed a clean sheet to wrap around her like a barber’s cape. Before I started I asked if she wanted me to cut her hair short first before shaving it, but she said no, to just shave her head.

“Oh my god,” she gasped.

And suddenly I felt very awkward, even guilty, about what I was doing. I realized for the first time how difficult it can be to lose your hair as a byproduct of saving your own life.

But this woman, my patient, had asked me to shave her head, and so I did.

When we were done, she headed to the shower to wash away all the small pieces of hair that were clinging to her. Meeting back in her room, I said, gently, “Well, you’re not crying.”

“No,” she said, “but that may come later.”

Read the entire story here, then tell us, how is cancer affecting you at work and home? Is your personal connection to the disease different because you’re a nurse?

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