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Dawn Murphy was two-and-a-half weeks into a new job when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
In her professional life, Dawn often swept her hair up into a neat bun. After her first few chemotherapy treatments, every strand was gone.
"It's funny because I never particularly liked my old hair," says Dawn. "Of course, when it's gone, all you do is want it back."
In April 2014, Dawn began her cancer treatment. Today, she is an advocate for the #NoHairSelfie campaign supporting cancer research at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre.
Participants are invited to shave their head on World Cancer Day, Feb. 4, or to shave their head virtually using the free #NoHairSelfie app on their smartphones. The goal is to raise awareness and to show solidarity for patients like Dawn who have lost their hair due to the harsh side effects of cancer treatment.
Out of left field
With no Breast cancer in her family history and in good health, Dawn was blown away when a routine mammogram lead to a confirmed Breast cancer diagnosis.
Forced to go on leave from her new job, Dawn had many adjustments to make. Her main priority was keeping things normal for her daughter, Grace.
"We were fortunate enough to have a full-time nanny, since my husband and I were both working full-time before cancer. We kept our nanny, kept our normal schedule so that Grace was able to have a happy life," says Dawn. "She saw changes in me but we did our best to talk about it very openly."
Although she was able to outwardly maintain her optimism for her daughter, things were more complicated for Dawn internally.
The initial cut
Dawn's medical oncologist warned that she would lose her hair due to the side effects of her chemotherapy treatment. While hair loss can be difficult for anyone, it is often especially difficult for women.
"I didn't believe it," says Dawn. "I would stay up late on the computer looking for the stories of women who didn't lose their hair. You look for that silver lining. But really, I was deluding myself."
In an attempt to face things head on, Dawn made an appointment with her hair stylist to cut her shoulder length hair into a short pixie cut. While many women look attractive with short hair, the hardest part for Dawn was that this change wasn't her choice.
"It's a real experience to be bald and not on your own terms. It's one thing to choose that, but for this to be forced upon me, and as a woman…" Dawn trails off, struggling with the memory. "I had curly hair so I'd straighten it every day with the blow dryer and flat iron. I felt that it was a big production. Now I just wish I had that back."
In the salon, Dawn cried in the chair as her stylist comforted her with tears in her eyes. Thinking the worst was over, Dawn decided that she could get used to her new hair. She returned to her medical oncologist to hear that there was still more to lose.
"I went back and said,
'Look, I cut my hair! It's all gone.' He looked at me and said,
all going to go.'"
After her first round of chemotherapy, handfuls of Dawn's pixie cut hair were coming out in the shower.
"It's indescribable how it comes out. The
amount that comes out," says Dawn. "You wake up in the morning and your pillowcase is just covered in hair. It doesn't take long."
Realizing that this was happening one way or another, Dawn called her hair stylist once again.
"She was so gracious. She came to my condo and shaved my head in my living room with my daughter looking on," says Dawn. Not wanting to worry her daughter, she held back tears and kept a brave face. "Grace thought I was just having a normal day in our home."
A bit of Hollywood inspiration was able to lift Dawn's spirits.
"My stylist said that I suited the
GI Jane look. So I thought, 'Well, if Demi Moore and all of those actresses can do it for movie roles, I can do this. I can do this."
Still, Dawn had a tiny bit of hair left.
"I was learning to rock the buzz cut. There was still a bit of hair and again I thought, 'I can get used to this.' And again, my medical oncologist must have thought, 'Who is this girl trying to kid?' Soon after, literally every strand fell out. I was completely bald by the time I was heading to my second chemotherapy treatment three weeks later. It was all gone."
"I had to decide how I was going to manage all of this, because the hair loss is so in your face. It's so obvious," says Dawn, who prefers maintaining a low profile in public.
"So I went to a wig salon to buy a wig. That was something. I never had exposure to wigs or the extent of wigs," she adds. "They ranged from $250 to $3,000. I couldn't believe it. So I took the middle range and got one at $1,600 for a human hair wig. I remember thinking, 'Wow. This amount could have taken me to the Dominican Republic.'"
Accompanied by her mother, trying on a wig for the first time was a very emotional experience for Dawn.
"My mom told me I looked like my old self. But I was totally uncomfortable. It felt so fake," she says. "So while I had the wig as an insurance policy, I didn't make friends with it. I didn't enjoy wearing it and I didn't feel like myself in it."
Dawn soon transitioned from wearing her wig to wearing cotton scrub caps to cover her head.
"I felt good in those. I think a part of me felt like I was channelling my inner surgeon," laughs Dawn. "I always wanted to be a doctor, so this was my chance to wear a scrub cap with some legitimacy."
While Dawn learned to feel a little more comfortable with scrub caps, people stared.
"I'm a relatively young woman with my daughter doing our regular routines, and people look and avert their eyes. I never wanted to be that person," says Dawn. "I spent my life trying to fit in, never over the top in terms of personality, and suddenly, I felt that I was sticking out like a sore thumb. I'm not sure if that was just my perception or if that was reality. It certainly felt like my reality."
Taking it day by day
Despite the initial shock of losing her hair, Dawn made progress with accepting the involuntary change. Over time, she became comfortable without a scrub cap or wig and was able to see her loved ones while completely bald.
"People in your network don't see the baldness the more you spend time with them," says Dawn.
"After a while, the baldness is like anything. You get used to it. You assimilate, like with a new job or a new baby. Honestly, I would never imagine saying this, but in the presence of your key people, you forget about the baldness. As do they. You have conversations and laughter and moments just like you did before cancer."
Going out in public was a different story, though.
"When I went outside my door, I would never rock the bald," she admits. "It was an esteem thing. It's so interesting how much one's hair is tied to self-confidence and self-esteem. I would have never imagined that."
Now, , Dawn's hair is growing back and at a short length. Although she looks like a healthy woman with short hair, Dawn views her hair as a constant reminder of her cancer experience.
"Some days I wake up and I still can't believe what I've been through," she says. "It's only when I look in the mirror. If I didn't look in the mirror, I would go through my day and not perseverate on the fact I had breast cancer.
When I look at the mirror, it's, 'Oh right, I had cancer.' And that churns up a whole series of thoughts over where I've been the last nine months."
With her daughter's smiling face as her strength, Dawn takes everything one day at a time.
"As much as there are low moments, like when you first see yourself in the mirror without a strand of hair on your head, there are moments of joy and laughter when you're surrounded by people who love you."
Supporting one of the top five
cancer research centres in the world
Today, world-leading clinicians and scientists at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre are working to develop gentler and more targeted treatment therapies. The hope is to lessen the taxing side effects of treatment so that both the body and mind of the patient can focus on eliminating the cancer.
While Dawn encountered several side effects during treatment, including burns from radiation therapy, she views hair loss as uniquely challenging because of its visibility.
As a result, Dawn is excited to support cancer research by raising awareness through the #NoHairSelfie campaign. Participants are invited to either shave their head physically or to download the free smartphone #NoHairSelfie app to do a "virtual shave." The app allows users to see what they would look like with no hair and to share the results on their social media channels.
By raising awareness, the campaign hopes to encourage people to donate funds for cancer research at Princess Margaret.
"I'm doing peer-to-peer fundraising with #NoHairSelfie and it's going like gangbusters," smiles Dawn. "Again, that's so overwhelming to me…that all of my people continue to support me and Princess Margaret. The outpour is overwhelming."
On World Cancer Day, Feb. 4, support the #NoHairSelfie campaign by shaving virtually or in real life, spreading the word through social media with the
#NoHairSelfie hashtag, and/or consider making a donation.
Learn more about the
#NoHairSelfie campaign in support of cancer research at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre.
To learn more about chemotherapy treatment, please visit