The Role of Hair Loss in Cancer Identity: Perceptions of Chemotherapy-Induced Alopecia Among Women Treated for Early-Stage Breast Cancer or Ductal Carcinoma in Situ

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Abstract

Background:

The trauma of chemotherapy-induced alopecia is well documented. However, less is known about how the stereotypical cancer identity affects social interactions.

Objective:

The aim of this study is to explore women’s experiences of hair loss resulting from breast cancer treatment, from a sociological perspective.

Methods:

Twenty-four women who had been treated for early-stage breast cancer or ductal carcinoma in situ were interviewed. References to hair (loss) were isolated from their narratives.

Results:

Findings confirm previous research that hair loss can be traumatic. The stigma attached to both having a cancer patient identity and nonconformity with norms of appearance means that women must decide how much to reveal and to whom. An unexpected finding was that distressing experiences were reported by some women who had not lost their hair.

Conclusions:

Hair is important to identity; therefore, there are implications for social interactions whether women decide to disguise their hair loss or not. There may also be implications for women who do not lose their hair because they fail to conform to the stereotypical appearance of the bald cancer patient. Future research should consider the role of stereotypes in patient experiences.

Implications for Practice:

Nurses should provide sufficient information and support to prepare patients for the impact on self-perception and social interactions when facing hair loss. Also, patients should be forewarned about the possible implications of not conforming to the cancer stereotype. In addition, greater education among the wider population about the possible side effects of cancer treatments may prevent women feeling stigmatized while already undergoing a stressful experience.

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