post-surgical menopause, chemotherapy and hair loss

Rainbow coloured fabric with the words 'Being bodies, Sunita's experience written in white.

Sunita was diagnosed with Ovarian cancer and is sharing her experience with post-surgical menopause, chemotherapy and coping with her changing body image.

There can be a whole range of things to consider when you go through treatment and everybody’s experience is so unique to them. Different aspects of body image are often talked about on the Community and Sunita is sharing her personal journey in the hope it can help you. As a trained makeup artist, Sunita also shares some of the things she did which you may find helpful.  

My whole world – and plans for a family – were shattered in April 2016, when I was suddenly diagnosed with ovarian cancer, having shown no previous symptoms of the disease.

Cancer is still stigmatised in the Asian community, from my experience, with many people unwilling to talk about it or seek help soon enough. There is also taboo over lost fertility, hair loss, surgical menopause (very painful) and Covid. Usually in Eastern culture women are easily blamed, as if they are cursed for maladies they have no control over.

When I lost my thick, lustrous, copper dyed long hair, I was devastated, crying in the shower as it had matted into one massive dreadlock. I tried to comb it out using lashings of expensive conditioner. Then it was coming out in clumps leaving me with bald patches. In the end my husband shaved my head, as the cold cap treatment for freezing the hair follicles didn’t work. Taxol was a nasty drug.

“Usually in Eastern culture women are easily blamed, as if they are cursed for maladies, they have no control over.”

On top of losing all my hair, I gained weight from surgical menopause, I was destroyed when I lost my fertility, periods, hair and ovaries. But I still had eight eggs frozen from fertility treatment and a healthy womb. Though I couldn’t have HRT, as I have positive hormone receptors. Antidepressants have helped, though I am trying to exercise more and eat more healthy food. But I love sugar and caffeine, I have found it hard to come to terms with my condition.

When I was bald I was very anxious about my image, so I found some exquisite, sequin hair turbans online and they became my signature style. Each day I would stride into chemotherapy or appointments with a dazzling rainbow turban and a full face of make up. I did toy with the idea of wigs but decided to just let my hair grow out naturally. As a British Punjabi woman, thick, long hair is seen as a symbol of beauty. I used sulphate free shampoos on my hair and lovely conditioners and lots of coconut oil to help rejuvenate and nourish my scalp. I began to embrace my new sprouting head of silver and inky black hair, I got many compliments saying I looked more striking. Though the trauma of losing my hair is still very fresh, I sought out counselling, a wonderful charity called Cancer Hair Care, Macmillan, friends and family I could trust for support.

“When I was bald, I was very anxious about my image, so I found some exquisite, sequin hair turbans online and they became my signature style.”

Sunita wearing makeup during her treatment

“I did toy with the idea of wigs but decided to just let my hair grow out naturally. As a British Punjabi woman, thick, long hair is seen as a symbol of beauty.”

 

I am lucky enough to be a trained make up artist and even when I was in hospital after my ovary removal surgery. I would pop on some make up, it was my warpaint, a red lip, a shimmer of pearl eye pigment and champagne highlighter made me feel like an empress. A great charity called Look Good Feel Better gifted me some exquisite cosmetics as well as holding Makeup tutorials for Cancer survivors.

 

A spritz of perfume, hot pink gel nails, a few individual eyelashes glued onto my hazel eyes to give me a bit oomph/ lift. Patients, doctors, nurses and other staff members would always comment on how glamorous and lovely I looked even if I was in agony from my newly stitched belly.

 

“I ran out in hot tears of shame as the embarrassment and humiliation eviscerated any self-confidence I had left. I felt barren, infertile, overweight, hormonal and bald.”


One good product of the chemo was the rest of my body remained hairless, I didn’t have to shave my legs and underarms or use depilatory cream on my upper lip or have a bikini wax. South Asian women have always been insecure about having hairy bodies, we are taught to be hairless is to be beautiful. I couldn’t visit a hairdresser to get preened, coiffured and dyed a rich shade of caramel.

I recall in Aldi not so long ago during the pandemic, I had popped in to get a bag of cherries and while at the fruit aisle, I heard a snigger behind me. As I turned, I saw a few male youths pointing at me smirking as they muttered ‘baldy’ and ‘slap head’ under their breath. I ran out in hot tears of shame as the embarrassment and humiliation eviscerated any self-confidence I had left. I felt barren, infertile, overweight, hormonal and bald. I spoke to my Hospital Cancer Psychologist who assured me I had nothing to be ashamed. But when I saw the image of a mocha coloured head that looked like a hard boiled egg that had been submerged in coffee, I despaired. Everywhere I was taunted by images, adverts and movies depicting perfectly airbrushed, youthful models with a crown of burnished curls. I had a few sporadic baby curls popping up on my newly smooth head.

“The restrictions from the Lockdown had buffeted me from cruel jibes about my appearance. I hadn’t come this far to give up”

Sunita wearing makeup during her treatmentI was no Punjabi ‘Meryl Streep’, I didn’t want to be a Bollywood starlet in a weepy movie about endurance and hardship. I just wanted to be Indestructible ‘Nitty’ Su (good) nita (morals) in Sanskrit, Nitty was a pet name.

The restrictions from the Lockdown had buffeted me from cruel jibes about my appearance. I hadn’t come this far to give up, it was great having a hairless body, though the bloated, mood swings, anger, hot flushes, fainting, anxiety, low mood and a million other symptoms were hell!

My few remaining eyelashes were hanging on for dear life, as were my eyebrows, with some careful and artistic shading and lashings of mascara I looked almost human.

“The restrictions from the Lockdown had buffeted me from cruel jibes about my appearance. I hadn’t come this far to give up, it was great having a hairless body, though the bloated, mood swings, anger, hot flushes, fainting, anxiety, low mood and a million other symptoms were hell!”

 Make up was the fantasy that filled my world with magic. A great tip I learned from a make up artist was to sprinkle show powder onto your lashes and coat it in lots of mascara. It would build up the volume and give a more impactful look. These little tricks, nuggets of advice and little moments of joy are what counted. I had gratitude for many things, I still retained my health, my hair would grow back and my womb was healthy with viable eggs frozen for future implantation. I was living for today, loving for today, being mindful of the precious time I had with my wonderful husband and handsome dog Ghost.

We would like to thank Sunita writing this blog and for sharing it with us on the Community. Sunita has shared some great tips and advice about dealing with the changes to her body image, and we hope you have found this helpful. If you would like to share your tips with Sunita and other members, please put them in the comment box below.

 

Anonymous
  • Hi Sunita, can I first say that you are so beautiful.  Cancer is such a lonely place isn’t it? I think you have been so brave. I was diagnosed with Uterine cancer in 2019, I am just starting to come to terms with it. I have had real good help from my cancer Psycologist. I think we have to put it behind us and embrace the stronger person we have become. You take care stay safe. Gillian x

  • Hi 

    Thank you for reading Sunita's blog and for leaving such a lovely comment. I just wanted to let you know that we have passed this on to Sunita so she is aware of what you have said. I hope as a member of the site you are finding it to be a comforting source of support and if you need any help, you're always welcome to get in touch with the Community team by emailing community@macmillan.org.uk

    Best wishes

    Megan
    Macmillan's Online Community Team