I watched as hanks of hair drifted to the floor – my femininity vanishing before my
very eyes: Her golden hair was her trademark. Here actress Sally Farmiloe describes the agony of losing it
10:54 GMT, 7 September 2012
Sally Farmiloe was diagnosed with breast cancer three months ago
My dear husband Jeremy kissed me without being prompted, which is almost unprecedented. ‘You look like a little elf,’ he said approvingly when he saw my new, cropped hairstyle. I have a less flattering term for it: I call it my ‘comb-over’.
Like Bobby Charlton and the late Robert Robinson, I now style my hair to disguise the fact that I’m going bald. This, I fervently hope, will be only a temporary state. My hair loss has been caused by the chemotherapy I’m undergoing in order to combat breast cancer.
On my optimistic days — and I have to say I’m usually good at looking on the bright side — I try to see the positives. I have a wonderful array of baseball caps and it gives me a chance to wear them. I also have a vast collection of wigs and hair-pieces from my various acting roles, and these have all come out of hibernation.
I flatter myself, too, that I have a rather neat pair of ears, which I can now display to their best advantage.
Plus, although hanks of hair have fallen out at the back of my head, on top and at the temples, I still have my fringe.
So if I wear a hat, no one need be aware of my problem — which they weren’t the day I went to see the men’s volleyball at the Olympics the other week.
A security officer asked me to remove my cap before she would admit me to the stadium. I suppose I could have been harbouring some explosive device underneath it, but when I explained that I was under-going cancer treatment and all I was hiding was my bald patches, she was charmingly apologetic and admitted me with a smile.
It is now just over three months
since I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I have a grade-two invasive
ductal carcinoma, to be precise, and I am awaiting surgery to remove it.
months ago, I described in this paper how I challenged the doctor who
told me I would need a mastectomy, and transferred my care from Charing
Cross Hospital to the matchless Royal Marsden in Chelsea, London, where I
was offered the less radical option of a lumpectomy to excise the
My boobs, you see,
are so vital a part of my livelihood — as an actress, I play glamorous
ladies with plunging necklines, and, as a model, I often endorse evening
gowns — that I did not want to part with one of them unless there was
incontrovertible clinical evidence that it was vital.
to my intense relief, four experts have agreed that I can keep my
breast: I am a suitable candidate for the less invasive operation.
Brave: Sally's hair before chemotherapy (left) and her new crop (right)
Meanwhile, I have begun a course of chemotherapy to shrink the tumour.
I confess I found the very idea of chemotherapy terrifying. While I didn’t want to lose my whole breast, the prospect of surgery actually holds far fewer fears for me. After all, I’ll be out cold and will have no idea what is going on during the procedure.
Chemo, however, seemed like a
nightmarish amalgam of my two worst phobias. I hate needles and blood.
Both, I knew, would be involved.
I realised, too, of course, that I was likely to lose my hair — and the
idea appalled me. Frankly I’m vain, and my thick, blonde mane has
always been my crowning glory.
I knew that I needed chemotherapy, but I did my best to put
the 1970s, I earned good money from it as a hairdressers’ salon model
for celebrity cutters including Stephen Way and Robert Fielding. Then,
in the 1980s, when I played Dawn in the TV drama Howards’ Way, my big
hair became my trademark.
haven’t had it cut short since I was 12 years old, when urchin crops
were fashionable. Since then, for the best part of half a century — I’m
now 58 — I’ve kept my hair long because it’s so much more versatile.
worn it in corkscrew curls, sophisticated chignons and up-dos, sleek
and straight, and in a mass of tumbling waves. When I’m off-duty, I
favour a girlish pony tail or plait.
My thick hair has always been my
defence against the world. When I’ve felt below par, I’ve hidden behind
it. I like a forgiving fringe, too, because it covers my forehead and
allows me to cut down on the Botox!
although I knew that I needed chemotherapy, I still did my best to put
it off. In the end, though, I saw reason. I bit the bullet for the sake
of my beloved 20-year-old daughter Jade, who burst into tears one
evening when we were watching TV together.
Brave: Sally's hair before chemotherapy (left) and her new crop (right)
She’d seen a young woman who had a
tattoo in memory of her late mother, a victim of breast cancer. I
realised then that I owed it, not only to Jade, but also to my adopted
daughter Katherine, 25, whose mum, my dear friend Marilyn, died after a
battle with breast cancer, to get cracking.
I booked a session of hypnotherapy to quell my nerves, and on July 20
swallowed a tranquiliser at the Marsden before my first treatment. I
chose my dear friend Adele as my chemo companion. Adele is a lively and
humorous divorcee, and I knew her wisecracks would be the perfect
antidote to the rising terror I felt.
The process of losing my hair was alarming. I felt as if a defining feature of my femininity was being literally uprooted
sure enough, as the steroids and chemo drugs were being pumped into my
vein, we found ourselves laughing hysterically. ‘Hot doc at nine
o’clock,’ I hissed to Adele, as the first in a parade of gorgeous young
medics strode past.
chosen to wear an ice cap as a prelude to my treatment because there is
evidence that it helps to preserve hair. The contraption — which looks
like a riding helmet minus the peak — is literally freezing cold, heavy
and uncomfortable, but I endured it for the necessary two hours because I
wanted to give my hair follicles the best chance of survival.
lovely nurse who administered the chemo was reassuring, and the
treatment was, in honesty, far less daunting than I’d feared.
I’d returned to the home in West London that I share with my husband of
ten years, Jeremy, a 59-year-old chartered surveyor, our daughter Jade,
Jeremy’s son Alistair, 22, and Katherine, it was a few hours before the
unpleasant side-effects of the treatment materialised.
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Sally makes the most of her assets in evening gowns at events in 2004
Then, a few days after the first chemo cycle, came the first ominous signs. ‘Look Jade!’ I wailed, showing her the clumps that were falling out as I brushed it. She tried to reassure me that I was not shedding more than the usual amount that attaches to the comb, but I was not convinced.
In truth, I did not really start to notice my hair loss until after my second chemo session on August 9. And by then, I had reason to celebrate because a scan had revealed that the treatment had shrunk my 3 cm tumour to almost half its size. It was a cause for joy, a minor miracle. If the trade-off was temporary baldness, I reasoned, I could not complain.
Even so, the process of losing my hair was alarming. I felt as if a defining feature of my femininity was being literally uprooted.
It happened, by stealth, one night as I slept. I’d put my hair in a top-knot — I call it my ‘pineapple’ — as I always do, to stop it tangling when I sleep.
That night, burdened by insomnia, I’d succumbed to a sleeping pill. When I woke my top-knot was matted into a huge, stubborn whorl that yielded neither to brushing nor to the ministrations of Jade and her de-tangling spray.
Gingerly, I brushed the areas around the matting: my hair fell out in swathes.
Doctors originally told Sally that she would have to lose a breast but she got a second opinion and four experts have agreed that this is not necessary
It’s odd, but I didn’t cry then. But I
did sob my heart out in the early hours of the next morning when,
restless and wakeful, I watched Pretty Woman. I cried not because the
film was sad, but because I so envied Julia Roberts’ thick, tumbling
curls. I knew my hair would not be that length again for years.
The next day, a Sunday, I hid my
thinning hair under a baseball cap. That night I swathed it, Simone de
Beauvoir style, in a turban. I did not tell Jeremy about my hair loss,
and neither, I think, did he suspect anything.
arrived and my hairdresser Steven Smith gallantly came to my rescue.
cut out the tangled and matted mass, explaining that it had been caused
when the dead hair I was shedding had become enmeshed with the growing
As he continued to brush, I watched, aghast, as hanks of hair
drifted to the floor.
Steven snipped away. He combed my
thinning hair across my crown and temples to cover the bald patches,
creating a clever gamine crop like a school boy’s.
Then he blow-dried it to ensure none of my scalp was exposed. The effect, I thought, was quite cute.
though caring and supportive, is undemonstrative. Yet that evening,
quite unprompted, he kissed me and made his sweet little elf remark. I
knew then he realised how vulnerable I felt.
Jeremy is also balding, but he has
sleek iron-grey hair at his temples and a nice sun-tanned pate. And of
course he is a man, so he can never understand quite how devastating it
is for a woman — especially one, like me, who has earned her living from
her looks — to lose her hair.
I have many reasons to be cheerful. Unlike our heroic Olympic
gold-medal winning cyclist Joanna Rowsell, whom I admire so much, I do
not have alopecia. Although my hair loss may worsen before it improves, I
am confident it will not be a permanent condition.
I am being positive. I am enjoying the chance to wear the assortment of
theatrical wigs and hair-pieces — I call them my ferrets — that — I’ve
accumulated over the years.
invested, too, in a stylish new butterscotch-coloured wig, chopped into
a shaggy crop like Lulu’s. I also have a fabulously luxuriant Swedish
blonde wig supplied by the NHS. It’s called the Crystal, and it makes me
look like a Nordic Rapunzel. When I wore it to a recent art exhibition,
I was gratified when one of Jade’s young male friends commented on my
‘cool’ hair style.
Even when I’m sporting my natural comb-over, Jade is encouraging. ‘Oh Mumma, you still look beautiful!’ she reassures me.
Of course it is a devastating psychological blow to any woman when the hair that defined her suddenly falls out. There is also the fact that one’s bald patches chafe against hats, and become sore and red if left unprotected in the sunshine.
I miss my own luxuriant hair, and when I’m low I regularly cry over the loss of my ‘tail’. But, of course, the loss of it is a tiny price to pay for the shrinking of my tumour — which is now half the size it was.
I will know next week, when I return for more chemotherapy, if it has shrunk still more. If it disappeared altogether, it would be a wonderful thing. Then I’d throw my hat in the air and happily flaunt a head as shiny and bald as a billiard ball.
My Left Boob: A Cancer Diary by Sally Farmiloe-Neville will be published by Delancey Press next year in aid of The Royal Marsden Hospital and Yes To Life! Cancer Charity. Sally will be supporting Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October on behalf of Cancer Research UK.
Interview by Frances Hardy