Cancer and COVID-19: During a pandemic, hair loss not necessarily a bad thing

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It started almost the day when I read and had been told it would happen. Just after my second chemotherapy treatment, my hair started to come out.

It was slow at first. One night, I noticed it coming out in larger-than-usual portions in my hairbrush and tangled in a ponytail holder I took out of my hair. Within a day or two, long strands of hair were coming out after I washed and brushed it.

I’d been expecting this, of course. I had wondered how I would feel when it actually happened. A couple weeks ago, I thought I’d be sad about losing my hair. Now, I figure there’s nothing to do but accept it as part of the process of breast cancer treatment.

Hair is just hair, and it will grow back eventually.

Tonight, I’ll put on my face mask and see my hairdresser to get it buzzed or shaved off. Cutting my hair is a way to feel more in control, fellow breast cancer patients have told me. And if I don’t do it, eventually my hair will look like there’s a dead animal in it. It’s best to cut it off before that happens.

Maybe I could do it myself or have a friend do it with the right tools, but I’d rather leave it to a professional. The weather is starting to heat up, so I’ll look for a ballcap or something to keep my poor head from being sunburned.

In some ways, losing my hair could be a good thing, especially now during a pandemic. It’s not that I want to look sick or for people to feel bad for me, but I’ll look like a cancer patient. I’ll look like what I am, one of the people the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says are at more risk of complications from COVID-19.

I’m extremely lucky to be working for the health department, which has been so good to me by allowing me to work from home during a really busy time. But sometimes going out in public is unavoidable.

And when I can’t avoid it, I hope that my presence might encourage other people to wear a face covering.

The idea of face masks is sound: They keep respiratory droplets that potentially carry the virus from spreading to other people. Not everyone with COVID-19 is symptomatic, so it’s possible a person could spread it without knowing it or before they know it. When I wear a face mask, it protects the people around me in the event I have COVID-19; when other people wear them, they protect me.

At times in stores, I’ve been one of a handful of people wearing them. Sometimes people are wearing them wrong. (It’s easy; cover your mouth and nose).

Both as a cancer patient and the public information officer for the health department, it concerns me.

Just recently, I stood beside a neighbor I hadn’t met yet in a shared laundry room. I wasn’t expecting him to be there, so I didn’t have a mask. Instead, I asked to keep the door open, to at least the keep air flowing.

“I don’t know if I believe all that stuff about COVID-19,” he said.

I do, I thought.

“Well I’m more concerned about it now because I’ve just started chemo treatment,” I explained, even though apparently word had gotten out and he already knew.

The next time we met while changing out our laundry, I had on a mask and he had pulled his shirt up to cover his mouth, a gesture I appreciated.

The truth is, it’s not just me who’s at risk for getting this disease. Vulnerable people are all around us, especially in West Virginia with its high number of elderly and chronically sick. Wearing a mask is something we can all do to protect our neighbors — cancer or not.

Contact Lori Kersey at lorikersey@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter @LoriKerseyWV. You can also read her blog at notesforthememoir.com.