RA Life

Chronic Illness and Hair Warfare

I have Rheumatoid Arthritis as well as other autoimmune diseases, and one of the most common complaints in my support group is about hair. Mostly women complain, but some men as well. As a culture, we’ve grown up valuing our hair particularly if we have long, beautiful hair. If it has become a striking characteristic that is an outward embodiment of who you are, it is hard to let go of. However, we are also facing the harshness of reality. We are taking drugs that may mess with the consistency and amount of our hair. Some of it, being low-dose chemo, may cause it to fall out.


And how about pain? It is really hard to come to grips with the fact that your beautiful, long, thick locks require standing for at least a half-hour, sometimes more, holding a heavy hair dryer up in the air or tediously curling/straightening each and every segment. By the time you’re a few minutes into it, your shoulders and hands are throbbing, as well as your ankles and feet from standing in front of the mirror trying to make your hair look a little less unkempt.


Here are a few things to keep in mind if you’re considering taking the plunge:


  1. Go to the salon prepared. The last time this came up in my online support group, someone was thinking about cutting their hair short. The responses from some were, “Oh, don’t do it. You’ll regret it. You’ll cry.” How about the tears shed in pain trying to stand around blow-drying and styling? That will reduce you to tears. If you do some research ahead of time and scope Pinterest for hair styles that match your hair type and thickness you are much more likely to get what you want. I always go in with two or three pictures to show to my stylist to help her give me the style that I want. I have had my hair very long (to where I could almost sit on it, and it would get caught in the waist band of my pants if I wasn’t careful.) I also currently wear a pixie. And I have had all lengths in between. When did my hair look its best? When I could care for it. Long hair was a whole lot of work.
  2. Remember to keep it low maintenance. If you are looking at curly hairstyles and your hair is naturally straight or vice-versa, you’re not doing yourself any favors anyway. Keep your hair natural. The more natural, the less work. The less work, the greater your chance of having some energy left for other critical things like prepping meals or taking your child to soccer practice.
  3. Caring for yourself is most important.When we are chronically ill our priorities must shift by necessity. What we have to come to grips with, is the fact that we are not the same person we were before no matter how much we may want to be. Putting everyone else before our own needs, while being unhealthy under normal circumstances, is now detrimental. Our focus needs to be on owning the new person, and making adjustments so the new person can thrive. This new person may not have the strength and stamina to spend precious energy on lengthy grooming. When it comes to which is more important for facing the world today, perfectly quaffed hair or you, the answer should always be you. In one of my support groups, I saw a woman say she didn’t want to cut her hair short, and she didn’t think anyone else should either, because it would offend cancer patients. I am totally supportive of cancer patients, but why should our hair offend them? We are ill too. It’s our hair too. And some treatments for autoimmune diseases also are used to treat cancer when administered in higher doses, like the methotrexate that I take. Some drugs and some conditions cause hair loss. There should be absolutely no shame in self-care.
  4. It can be a confidence booster—Many of us find a change of hairstyle to be refreshing. As well, cutting your hair shorter may also give you more confidence. No longer relegated to messy ponytails or hats, you now also don’t have to feel embarrassed. Your friends may even complement you on how chic you look.
  5. Think about donating. If your hair isn’t healthy, this won’t work. But if it is, and it’s just too much work, you might think about donating to a charity like Locks of Love. As scary as it is for you to think about cutting your hair, imagine a child suffering from cancer who has no choice.
  6. Forewarn your spouse/significant other. If you think it will help, give your significant other a heads up about it. Not for them to bully you into not doing it, but in order to let them know that you desperately need ways to improve your life. Before I was diagnosed I was struggling so much. And my hair showed it. I’m not going to lie. When I informed my family of what I was contemplating, I was afraid there would be negative reactions. Instead I was greeted with hearty support and encouragement to do whatever was necessary to ease my burden.


So, if you are thinking about cutting your hair. Worst case scenario, you’ll grow it out. Or find some stylish hats to wear. But in all likelihood, it will save you some energy that you can put into other projects and possibly save you some pain.



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