Looking in the mirror and not really recognising the person staring back at you is a very odd feeling.
For me, losing all my hair less than two weeks after starting strong chemotherapy — aptly nicknamed ‘the red devil’ — for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was my wake-up call. The moment reality hit. And it hit hard. Not only did I have cancer; I now looked like a cancer victim.
I’d been brave up until that point; able to trick myself into believing I’d got this. I was strong. I had a loving, supportive family and friends. The doctors knew what they were doing. I trusted the science. I’d managed to distance myself mentally from the medical experiences I’d had so far, as though they and I existed in parallel universes.
When you are told you have cancer you basically have no other option than to take a crash course in stoicism. You have to take a deep breath and find inner strength you didn’t know you possessed. I found it helped to think of what was happening only in tiny increments. Not to address The Big Picture — too scary — but instead, to focus on just getting through each day.
Sarah Standing (pictured) reflects on suffering hair loss after having strong chemotherapy to fight non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
No driver wants a car that doesn’t work. You want it fixed with alacrity and to be back out on the road. You want knowledgeable mechanics to get beneath the bonnet, replace parts and mend it. The doctors had found my body’s fault, now it needed to be taken apart and put back together again. It would be off the road for six months or so, but then I’d reclaim it and hopefully drive away.
It was inevitable that I would lose my hair. As soon as I was told I needed chemo it was practically the first question I asked my oncologist.
‘Am I going to heavily resent you for the fact I’ve just spent a small fortune having my highlights done?’ I joked. ‘I’m afraid so,’ he answered, explaining I was likely to lose it between my first and second sessions.
I was one of those fortunate babies born with a full head of hair. By the time I could walk, my mother, actress and author Nanette Newman, was styling me with an impressive topknot. Childhood photographs all depict a round-faced little girl sporting fat bunches and glossy ponytails.
Everyone in my family has been blessed with the hirsute gene. My mother, at 87, still has great hair, as do all three of my children.
As an adult, I obviously ditched the topknots and bunches, but never, ever the hair. I’ve never cut it above my shoulders, never been tempted to dye it blonde, nor succumbed to any fashion dictums advising women over a certain age to discard their flowing locks and adopt a more mature look.
I loved my hair. It never let me down. And if it did ever threaten to misbehave, I’d twist it, scrunch it into a bulldog clip, all 18 in of it, and wear it up.
For 61 years we were together without ever falling out, both literally and figuratively. I never had the luxury of a perfect figure, or great cheekbones, or legs that went on for ever, but my hair was top quality.
Sarah said her childhood photographs all depict a round-faced little girl sporting fat bunches and glossy ponytails. Pictured: Sarah before treatment
Not that I consider myself especially vain about my looks, or one of those deluded women who regard old age as optional. It happens to us all. I believe that while youth is a fabulous thing, every age comes with benefits.
I’ve never been reckless, concerned, insecure (or wealthy) enough for Botox or fillers or face peels. I just figured floppy, thick hair covered wrinkles and provided a welcome distraction from the ravages of time.
It was two days before the second lockdown was announced that I was told I had cancer.
I was alone in a hospital bed, having undergone a battery of tests, biopsies, scans and procedures. Solo. No support team allowed. No family. No visitors.
The kind doctor who delivered me the news was wearing full PPE and apologised profusely that he couldn’t pull up a chair and hold my hand. He offered to make a phone call to my husband and tell him for me, but I reassured him I could do it.
He asked if there was anything else he could do, and I remember saying: ‘No, it’s fine, but I wonder if a nurse could come and disconnect me from my drip?’
I was on it for one of those invasive diagnostic procedures. I had an overwhelming desire to buy myself a few more minutes of normality. I wanted a shower. I wanted to stand beneath piping hot water, cry where no one could hear, and somehow find the courage to make the most difficult phone call of my life.
Sarah said chemo is the gift that keeps on giving, as she’s experienced mouth ulcers, neuropathy, loss of appetite and steroid sleeplessness. Pictured: Sarah and her mother Nanette Newman
I also wanted to wash my hair.
The entrepreneur and handbag designer Anya Hindmarch, a close friend, has recently published a book titled, If In Doubt, Wash Your Hair — A Manual For Life. The irony was not wasted on me. Just as a blow-dry has transformative powers to make one look and feel better, I hoped having squeaky clean hair might lift my mood and give me courage.
So I washed my hair. I was in a lot of doubt. And a lot of denial. But at least my hair was clean.
And then I began chemo and started to wither. Chemo is a bit like a Chernobyl going off inside one’s body. It’s a brilliant, silent assassin. Sneaky. The gift that keeps on giving. From gruesome mouth ulcers and neuropathy (pain caused by nerve damage) in my hands and feet, to loss of appetite and steroid sleeplessness, every day is full of surprises. One day I went to the loo and discovered I had a full Hollywood. That was fine. An unexpected bonus. As was the fact I had silky-smooth, hairless legs.
What was not so good was the morning I discovered that overnight my mane had morphed into the late Amy Winehouse’s beehive. But not in a good way. It had knotted and twisted into a giant furball. I panicked.
Too scared to unravel the mess myself, I called my hairdresser Clive, who has cut my hair for three decades.
Sarah (pictured, today) said she couldn’t bring herself to ask anyone in her family to shave her wisps off
He came over, masked and refusing payment. I opened a bottle of red wine which we drank while he painstakingly detangled my hair before giving me a choppy, short, layered bob. Shorter than ever before.
He warned me he wasn’t sure it would last a week, but promised he would come back to shave it off if it continued to fall out. I posted a photo on my Instagram saying I loved it. Which I did.
But I woke up to find multiple hairs on my pillow and a growing sense of doom. I only had to touch it and it would come away in a clump like a hair extension that had lost its bearings.
Two days later, my parting had widened. It was game over.
In hospital the following day for blood tests, I cornered a nurse and asked her to shave my miserable wisps off. I couldn’t bring myself to ask anyone in my family, and I was too much of a coward to wait until it all just fell out of its own accord.
There I sat with my head bowed. There was no mirror. It was possibly the most submissive thing I have ever done. I hung my head and big fat tears plopped on to the floor as she shaved off the last vestige of pride, femininity and vanity I felt I had left.
I didn’t look up. I pulled on a beanie hat, thanked her, and completely avoided my reflection.
Sarah admits that she felt ashamed for being a relatively intelligent, forward-thinking woman who was placing so much emphasis on how she looked. Pictured: Sir John Standing and Lady Sarah Standing
I came home and kept my hat on, refusing to show my husband for an entire week. Pathetic.
In the scheme of things, how trivial and superficial was I to care so much? The rational part of my brain knew there were more important things to worry about, yet I minded. And I felt ashamed for being a relatively intelligent, forward-thinking woman who was placing so much emphasis on how I looked.
Eventually I buckled up, got a grip, isolated and gave up Christmas and seeing anyone I loved bar my husband. I lay in bed shivering and thin, feeling wasted and unsteady. Having lost every single hair on my body, I swapped the beanie for a cashmere version — my bald scalp was so sensitive, it hurt.
I couldn’t retain heat and slept with an electric blanket and bed socks. I’d get to sleep early but then be awake from 2am, and in the lonely hours of sleeplessness I discovered a world of empathetic strangers on Instagram.
Hundreds of people who had been or were currently on this strange cancer journey and who were willing to hold my hand in the night and compare notes.
It took six weeks for anything to grow back and then it was a bit of fuzz, not grey, but brown-black with little flecks of white.
Sarah (pictured) said she yearns to be like the Barbie doll she got for her eighth birthday and wants her old hair back to feel like the old her
A few weeks later, I had what looked like a buzz cut, and then, almost overnight, I got curls, or rather a dull frizz, where before it had been glossy and straight.
I hate this alien, post-chemotherapy hair, and when I posted as much on Instagram (@sarahkstanding) last week, I connected with an army of familiar strangers who felt exactly the same. Multitudes of fellow cancer sufferers feel they have lost their identity because it’s not actually their hair — it’s different. Someone else’s hair.
I yearn to be like the Barbie doll I got for my eighth birthday. The one that had a button in her stomach you could push to miraculously retract and then restore her hair. I want my old hair back to feel like the old me.
Seven months after finishing chemo, I’m over this curly, zero-maintenance look that perches on top of my head. Too springy to sling on any of the fabulous wigs I invested in when bald, it’s like The Emperor’s New Hair — people say they love it but I fear they are just paying lip service.
I think the trick is to own one’s dissatisfaction. It may be shallow, but at least it’s honest. I long to go back to the hairdressers and be bored while I have highlights done and a wash and blow-dry, but not on this hair.
And yet, I know how lucky I am to be bothered by it at all. As life expectancy increases, one out of every two people will get cancer. How we cope with it is up to the individual, the treatment prescribed and the gods. And luck.
The lessons I’ve learnt on this unwelcome journey are simple. Appreciate every day. Love your family and friends fiercely. Be grateful — beyond grateful — for modern medicine and science.
I follow an inspirational cancer survivor and author called Lawrence Wray on Instagram. He’s an amazing man. He’s beaten cancer 17 times and is completely bald. He says we all have two lives. The second one starts when we realise we only have one. And goddamnit, he’s right.
What good is a good hair day unless you are fortunate enough to be alive for the bad ones, too?