From Blonde to Blue and Beyond

Special for Maine Digital Collaborative

From Blonde to Blue and Beyond: My Chemo Hair Journey

Misty Krueger

Associate Professor of English
University of Maine-Farmington


June 2022

Cover image: Daniele Levis Pelusi, Unsplash
Pictures of Misty Krueger
© Misty Krueger. All rights reserved

" Who is the God of Death? Why does he want the hair?"

—Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

Thanatos, the god of death in Greek mythology, is known for using his sword to cut off people’s hair, consecrating it, and then giving it to the gods. But why do they want the hair?

Hair has secular and spiritual values. It symbolizes a range of qualities, including strength, sexuality, and freedom. The loss of hair points to quite the opposite. Hair also has been thought of as an external representation of the soul, and depending on how people handle their hair – growing it long, cutting it short, letting it flow freely, tying it up, obscuring it from public view, and coloring it – we sometimes can get a sense of a person’s identity based on their hair.
There are situations in which people’s hair connotes cultural affiliation. Sikhs, for instance, do not cut their hair as a part of their faith. Indian widows shave and cover their heads as a sign of mourning. When joining the US military, people often get buzz cuts. Sometimes people purposefully don’t cut their hair as a sign of resistance. For instance, some women in the U.S. don’t shave their legs or underarms to resist arbitrary cultural norms.

There are also situations in which hair signifies great change. Losing hair represents the loss of youth and sometimes health. In the summer of 2018, at forty-one-years old, I lost my hair – all of it – due to chemotherapy. After my first treatment, my head hair began to fall out, and by the second treatment, I experienced more hair loss. I decided not to wait for every strand to drop and buzzed my head. Afterwards, even the stubble fell out, and so did the hair all over my body. Yes, I was hairless.

I decided to document this journey by taking pictures and writing about what it felt like to go through such a transformative process. From October 2018 to August 2019, I wrote my memoir, The Roller Coaster: A Breast Cancer Story, and almost two thousand words about my hair alone. I wrote about the trauma of losing my hair after losing my breasts. I wrote about haircuts, being hairless, wigs, caps, hair growth, and hair dyes. Let me take you on a journey to show you what it was like to go through cancer treatment and lose a symbolic part of myself: my hair.

May 23, 2018, about a week before my surgery
© Misty Krueger. All rights reserved.

Let me take you on a journey to show you what it was like to go through cancer treatment and lose a symbolic part of myself: my hair.

After my bilateral mastectomy in June 2018, I began a tough chemotherapy regimen in July that would cause the hair all over my body to fall out. In June I had long, straight, dark blonde hair. With my husband’s help in July I started cutting this hair shorter to prepare myself for my eventual baldness, and by August my husband shaved my head. Within a couple of chemo treatments of the drugs Adriamycin and Cytoxan—what the breast cancer community colloquially calls the “red death” or “red devil” because one of the drugs is red—I noticed my hair falling out more, so before my third treatment I asked my husband to shave my head.

I reflected on that experience in a chapter from my memoir called “The Haircuts”:

Before the visit [with my sister and her family], my husband and I decided it was time to start cutting my hair. Time to go from collarbone to shoulder length to something more creative. My husband bought a hair buzzing kit and buzzed the bottom portion of my head, thus leaving a longer top to hang over it. It was an edgy look that my husband said reminded him of Trinity from The Matrix. It was fun to try out a new, albeit temporary, look.

I definitely looked different, not as soft and sweet as I did with my old hairstyle. “My old hair”: longish, straight, part to the side, one length. I have had other hairstyles in the past that were shorter and uneven. I had those after donating my long hair to charity—to women and children who had lost their hair. This new style was blunt and a sign of what I was going through. I was being torn apart piece by piece.

After about a week of wearing my Trinity hair, and during my family visit, I decided to try another style. Some hair was falling out, and I really didn’t want to keep finding strands of hair everywhere, so I asked my husband to give me a shorter cut. This style looked kind of like a military ‘do—the bottom buzzed and the crew cut on top. I was surprised at how cute this style was, and at how it was a softer look for me than the Trinity one.

But after half a week of this style, and finding more and more hair falling out, I decided to ask my husband to buzz the entire head. It was time to move forward in the process and just take control of the situation. So after my sister and her family departed, I went commando. I had some stubble, which gave me a G.I. Jane appearance, and surprisingly (yes, again surprised), my head looked OK. The shape was normal; it was symmetrical. When people saw my head they said things like, “Wow, you have a nice head!” or “Your head is perfectly round!” I thought that I would look like an alien; you know the shape. I thought that I might look like a freak, but I didn’t. I just looked like a woman who had shaved her head.

I also took pictures to document my transition and posted them to my social media.

I thought that I might look like a freak, but I didn’t. I just looked like a woman who had shaved her head. July 10, 2018, the first hair cut. © Misty Krueger. All rights reserved

July 22, 2018, second hair cut
© Misty Krueger. All rights reserved

July 24, 2018, buzz cut
© Misty Krueger. All rights reserved

Even with this buzz cut, I still had hair to lose. The tiny stubble on my head fell out, as did my eyelashes, eyebrows, and basically every piece of hair on my body: arm hair, nose hair, pubic hair, hair you didn’t even know you had. It was shocking to be so bald.

To hide the baldness in public I wore bandanas and caps, and I eventually bought a hot pink cheap party wig on and was given a nice brown wig at The Dempsey Center in Lewiston, Maine. The caps felt better than the wigs, which were hot and itchy. I wrote about this in my memoir chapter, “Wigs and Caps”:

Many women wear wigs while undergoing chemotherapy because they want to retain an important part of identity: having hair on their heads. Some women wear caps. If it’s summer, baseball hats or thinner coverings, such as bandanas or jersey cotton buffs, are suitable. If it’s winter, beanies or wool hats will do. I wore all of these.

My mom wore a wig, and she encouraged me to get one. She got a few free ones from a national cancer organization when she was on chemo and then bought a really nice one that looked like her old hairstyle and color. She rarely wore hats, but I remember that floppy Scooby-Doo one she wore to a Dave Matthews Band concert. One thing I learned from my mom was that wigs are hot. She was undergoing chemo during a hot southern summer, in which temps got up to 100+ for days on end. Sometimes she would get in the car and rip off that wig. Too hot! She would wipe off her head, which was drenched in sweat.

I run a little hot, so I knew that getting my own treatment in the summer would put me in warm situations. You see, I didn’t have air conditioning in my house since moving to New England. During the summer I went hatless and wigless at home. I would put on bandanas or baseball caps mostly when I went out so that people wouldn’t stare at me too much.

I did cave in and get a free wig. My mom and sister encouraged me to do this, and my sister found a nonprofit cancer support organization located about an hour away from my home that offered me a free wig. The people at the center were wonderful. I visited one day in the summer and was taken to the David Bowie room. Yup, someone donated a room to the center in honor of Bowie, who passed away after his own cancer struggle a few years ago. The room had pics of Bowie everywhere. It was bedazzled. I loved it.

The wig person basically treated me like I was at a salon. She offered my mom and me drinks. She gifted me bags and other items. She measured my head, and then I tried on a bunch of wigs.

The wigs, oh my the wigs. They come in every color, every style. Some are super short and made me feel like an old lady or mom from the 1970s. Some are mid-length. I preferred those. Some are super long. They felt very costumey. I tried on blonde, brown, and auburn colored wigs. I didn’t like the blonde ones—they looked too fake. I liked the light brown ones with some highlights. I liked the auburn colored ones. Maybe I’ll be a redhead one day, I thought. I opted for the light brown mid-length bob with bangs. The hair is pretty. It looks natural. Sometimes I would wear it on dates with my husband.

Otherwise I usually opted for caps or went au naturel. Shocking! I know! Who’s that bald lady? Even worse, who’s that old man? Oh, it’s me. On more than one occasion people I know mistook me for an old man when I was out in public.

I took a lot of pictures of myself wearing the many caps, hats, and wigs I acquired.

© Misty Krueger. All rights reserved

These pictures not only show the items adorning my head, but the toll chemo was taking on me.

My chemo treatments were hard on my body—so hard that I experienced anaphylaxis twice from one drug (Taxol) given to me in the second part of my chemotherapy regimen, and my white blood cell count tanked so low that I had to take multiple “chemo breaks,” as I called them. My oncologist would not allow me to receive chemotherapy because it was too dangerous for me—worse than getting chemo is getting an infection and ending up in the hospital.

Little by little, month by month, over the course of these gaps I could see hair growth. It was stubbly and fuzzy, but hair was growing on my head between chemotherapy treatments when I had the breaks. This gave me hope. I could see that after all of this treatment was done, I would have hair again. There would be flourishing beyond this terrible time.

That’s why I was utterly devastated when my oncologist wanted to switch my chemotherapy to a drug that has been known to cause permanent hair loss in women. How could I handle a lifetime of hairlessness? I could not imagine it, and I actually chose not to take the drug (Taxotere) and asked for a newer drug (Abraxane) that did not have that permanent side effect.

Besides writing prose contemplations on my hair journey, many times I composed odes to my body. I called them odes because I wanted to see parts of my body as literary subjects. For centuries, writers have chosen to write odes to commemorate and even to mourn important people and objects. I was in mourning as I thought about what was happening to my body, particularly my head.

Here is an excerpt from one such ode from fall 2018, “Ode to My Body: My Head,” that addresses my hairless head:

My head,

my hairless head.

How round you are without your disguise.

How white you look without your dirty blonde strands.

How cold you get without your covering.

When cancer came, I knew we would part.

Chemo kills hair cells.

So I cut you short, and then shorter,

and then shaved you off.

But nothing prepared me for how pale my head looked

when even the stubble fell out.

Here’s a picture of what I looked like at that time:

October 6, 2018, a picture showing the contrast of my bald head and a chemo side effect (facial flushing).
© Misty Krueger. All rights reserved

Once I finished up my chemotherapy in December 2018, my hair began to grow back as I hoped it would. Over the course of January through May 2019—the spring semester for university students and professors—I was overjoyed with my hair regrowth, but also frustrated by how much my hair had changed. I was seeing what people call “chemo hair.”

Chemo hair is hair that regrows completely differently from what a person had before chemo. My once dark blonde hair was growing in gray, white, brown, and black. My straight hair was wiry and curly. My old hair was gone, seeming never to return. To this day, my natural color has not returned, even though my hair has straightened out.

Still, I felt blessed to have new hair growth, and I wrote an ode about that. Here is an excerpt:

It took some time,

and it grew in odd ways.

At first it was patchy, a strand here and there,

poking through the crown, martyrlike,

a Benedictine monk’s ‘do,

thick on the bottom,

lining the perimeter of my head,

like male-pattern baldness.

My head was fuzzy

like that of a baby elephant or a troll doll.

Eventually the fuzz gave way to a forest growing after a fire,

a rebirth, a lawn after the dead of winter.

No longer the image of death,

but a lust for life.

Below are a few images showing how my hair grew in texturally and in various shades of gray, black, brown, and white.

January 21, 2019, hair growth on the back of my fuzzy head.
© Misty Krueger. All rights reserved

January 23 and February 6, 2019, thinner on the top, imitating male-pattern baldness.
© Misty Krueger. All rights reserved

Over the course of the spring semester I experimented with my new hair.
© Misty Krueger. All rights reserved

On a whim in February 2019 I bought a can of hot pink L’Oréal Colorista temporary hair color, which would normally wash out for people who sprayed it on long hair, but with my stubble, it ended up staining my scalp pink, and it did not wash out for a while.

Then with a bit more hair growth in March I decided to properly dye my hair. I purchased an ammonia- and paraben-free, semi-permanent, “burgundy” Natural Instincts hair dye, and my mother applied the color to my hair right in my kitchen. The color turned out to be more coppery than burgundy, but at least it wasn’t black, white, and gray, and certainly not that silly pink I sprayed on my head. I reflected on my experience in a memoir chapter I called “Going Red.”

I was tired of the gray and black hair. The pink had washed out. All that was left was some on the scalp. It was time to stop looking like an old lady. It was time to stop wearing hats to work every day, which I did because I didn't want my students to see my old lady head, and then my crazy pink scalp.

At the beginning of March I bought some Natural Instincts “Burgundy Brown” semi-permanent, ammonia- and paraben-free hair dye. Women are advised not to dye their hair for about 6 months after hair growth, but I couldn’t wait any longer. What’s the worst that could happen? My hair could fall out again? Big whoop. I had been bald, had sparse hair growth, wore caps, and then dyed my scalp pink. If my hair fell out again, so be it.

So my mom dyed my hair, and it turned out a coppery reddish color instead of burgundy or brown. That was a shocker, but I was OK with it. It was a normal color. It made my extremely short hair look more normal. I was prepared to show off this head and go hatless. And I did. And it felt great.

Here’s an image of me in my office feeling great with my new copper hair! March 13, 2019, the first week with copper hair and not wearing hats in public. © Misty Krueger. All rights reserved s

April 27 and June 26, 2019, first a demi-permanent maroon and then the permanent red
© Misty Krueger. All rights reserved

Over the course of the next few months I colored my hair a maroon color and finally a hibiscus red. I found that with my short, wiry, curly chemo hair—which was great because it was hair, but didn’t feel like “me”—the experimentation with color helped me adjust to my new hair.

I had never colored my hair before 2019. Never. Every hairdresser I ever met said never to color my beautiful blonde hair until it went gray. Well, they didn’t know I would go bald and then my hair would not regrow the same color, so I felt like I had to take advantage of this opportunity to play with color. On the left, you can see the two versions of red that followed the copper.

Trying new colors led to my trying to find my way to a new life: a life of recovery and regeneration. That’s exactly what I did when I sought out a professional who would bleach my hair and apply a “fashion color.”

In August 2019 I finally found the courage to go to a salon. I have always hated going to the salon, so going to see a hairstylist was something I had to work up to mentally. After someone suggested a friend’s stylist, I decided to take the plunge. I visited Orbit salon in Lewiston, and the amazing Lana spent hours on my hair.

First of all, the stylist had to strip my hair. Apparently red is a hard color to bleach, so even after Lana bleached my hair, there was still a hint of that red. Bleaching is also hard on your hair, and chemo patients are encouraged to wait six months to a year after the chemo hair grows in because of the fragility of that hair. © Misty Krueger. All rights reserved

Luckily my stylist applied plenty of extra conditioning to protect my hair. She also helped me pick a shade. We started with a violet that turned out to be magenta. In the early fall that faded to a light pink, as shown on the left.
© Misty Krueger. All rights reserved

Then I tried a bluish purple that eventually faded to a light, grayish blue by the end of December. © Misty Krueger. All rights reserved

In January 2020, I worked with my stylist to create an awesome blue that was three parts aqua and one part neon blue! It was electric. I felt the best with this color. © Misty Krueger. All rights reserved

March-May 2020, my early quarantine hair
© Misty Krueger. All rights reserved

All along the way I was letting my chemo hair grow out but getting haircuts to keep the style looking fresh. I had a pixie cut. I kept the back short and let the top grow. I looked at a bunch of styles and decided upon a goal. I scheduled a hair appointment for March 2020, and I planned to renew the shocking blue and get a trim.

Then news of the pandemic struck America, and plans changed.

I’m not only a cancer survivor, but also a person who has an autoimmune disease (rheumatoid arthritis). I would be categorized as a “high-risk” candidate for serious health problems resulting from COVID-19, so I put my entire life on hold. One of the first things I did was cancel my hair appointment. Like most people at the time, I thought that within a few months this quarantine would end. I would reschedule my appointment soon, I thought. In May 2020 I decided to postpone rescheduling until August. Then I didn’t see the stylist until the last day of April in 2021 after I was two weeks out from my second dose of the COVID vaccine.

You can see my hair journey from March 2020 to May 2021 below:

March 2021, quarantine hair part 2
© Misty Krueger. All rights reserved

The fashion colors, especially the aqua blue, made me feel alive and helped me feel like “myself.” This self was/is someone who enjoys bright, fun colors and making bold statements. This self was/is someone who doesn’t mind standing out in a crowd and being seen as unique.

From May 2020-August 2021, I went through a few more stops on my hair journey. In August 2020, Lana colored my hair the same shocking blue. In January 2021, I colored my own hair at home by using an over-the-counter dye called Splat – something I don’t recommend – and the color was supposed to be “Midnight Amethyst” but turned out a kind of royal blue that faded to purple.

Then in May 2021, I went back to Lana and walked out of the salon with a bright pink – kind of like that wig I bought during chemotherapy.
© Misty Krueger. All rights reserved

In the summer of 2021, I went blonde – a color I didn’t plan on but ended up with due to some complications at the salon. © Misty Krueger. All rights reserved

All the while my hair has been growing and straightening itself out. My chemo hair has been chopped off bit by bit, and I’m back to a texture and length I had before cancer. © Misty Krueger. All rights reserved

At the end of the summer, I returned to that same magenta from 2019; again, not planned, but my hair has decided that it has a mind of its own, and I’ve decided to let it do what it wants to do. As long as it doesn’t fall out, I’m happy.

© Misty Krueger. All rights reserved

When I returned to the salon in October 2021 I decided to try something new again: a coral sherbet color. I selected the color on a whim, but loved it.

While chemotherapy was devastating and it took years to move beyond that it, this December marks my three-year “I’m done with chemo” anniversary. To celebrate, I’ll probably experiment with my hair color again and reward myself with yet another color.

The possibilities are endless!

MDC stories