‘It wasn’t just my hair – it was my whole identity’: SARAH STANDING inherited hair from her mother Nanette Newman that was long and lustrous. Post-chemo, it is anything but . . .

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  • Sarah Standing’s childhood photos show off thick tufts and shiny ponytails
  • She was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma before the second lockdown
  • Actress Nanette Newman’s daughter has lost all her hair to chemotherapy
  • Admits to the urge to go to the hairdresser and gets bored while getting the highlights done

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It’s a very strange feeling to look in the mirror and not recognize the person who is actually staring back at you.

For me, losing all my hair less than two weeks after starting strong chemotherapy – called the ‘Red Devil’ – was my wake-up call for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The moment reality hits. And hit hard. Not only that, I had cancer; I looked like a cancer victim now.

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I was brave up to that point; I am able to convince myself that I have got it. I was strong I had a loving, supportive family and friends. The doctors knew what they were doing. I believed in science. I managed to mentally distance myself from my hitherto medical experiences, as if they and I existed in parallel universes.

When you are told you have cancer, you basically have no other choice but to take a crash course in stereotypes. You have to take a deep breath and find the inner strength you didn’t know you had. I found it helpful to think about what was happening in only small increments. Not to address The Big Picture – too scary – but instead, to focus on just achieving each day.

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Sarah Standing (pictured) reflects on the agony of hair loss after strong chemotherapy to fight non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma

No driver wants a car that doesn’t work. You want it to recover with full readiness and get back on the road. You want a knowledgeable mechanic to come under the bonnet, replace the parts and fix it. The doctors had discovered the fault of my body, now it needed to be taken apart and put back together again. It’ll be off the road for six or more months, but then I’ll retrieve it and hopefully go away.

It was inevitable that I would lose my hair. As soon as I was told I needed chemo, it was practically the first question I asked my oncologist.

‘Am I going to be so angry with you for the fact that I spent a small fortune perfecting my highlights?’ I joked. ‘I’m so scared,’ he replied, explaining that I was likely to lose it between the first and second season.

I was one of those lucky kids who was born with full hair. By the time I could walk, my mother, actress and writer Nanette Newman, was adorning me with an impressive braid. Childhood photos depict a round-faced little girl with thick clumps and a shiny ponytail.

Everyone in my family is blessed with the Hirsute gene. My mom, at 87, still has great hair like all three of my kids.

As an adult, I apparently shed the top knots and tufts, but never, ever hair. I’ve never cut it above my shoulders, never been tempted to dye it blonde, nor succumbed to any fashion dictum that encourages women over a certain age to abandon their flowing locks. Recommends to look more mature.

I loved my hair. It never disappointed me. And if it ever threatened to be abused, I’d twirl it, curl it into a bulldog clip, all 18 in it, and wear it.

For 61 years we were together literally and figuratively without ever falling apart. I’ve never had the luxury of a perfect figure, or great cheekbones, or legs that lasted forever, but my hair was high quality.

Sara said that all her childhood photos show a round-faced little girl sporting thick clumps and a shiny ponytail.  Pictured: Sarah before the treatment

Sara said that all her childhood photos show a round-faced little girl sporting thick clumps and a shiny ponytail. Pictured: Sarah before the treatment

It’s not that I consider myself particularly vain about my looks, or one of those seductive women who consider old age optional. It happens to us all. I believe that while puberty is a wonderful thing, every age comes with benefits.

I’ve never been careless, anxious, insecure (or wealthy) enough for Botox or fillers or facial peels. I just saw wrinkles covered with floppy, thick hair and provided a welcome distraction from the ravages of time.

Two days before the announcement of the second lockdown, I was told that I had cancer.

I was alone in a hospital bed, going through a battery of tests, biopsies, scans and procedures. Solo. No support team allowed. no family. No visitors.

The kind doctor who informed me was wearing full PPE and apologized that he could not hold my hand by pulling on a chair. She offered to call my husband and tell him for me, but I reassured him that I could do it.

He asked if there was anything else he could do, and I remember him saying: ‘No, that’s fine, but I wonder if a nurse could come and disconnect me from my drip?’

I was on it for one of those invasive diagnostic procedures. I had an overwhelming desire to buy myself a few more minutes of mediocrity. I needed a shower. I wanted to stand under piping hot water, cry where no one could hear, and somehow find the courage to make the toughest phone call of my life.

Sarah said that chemo is the gift that keeps on giving, as she has suffered from mouth ulcers, neuropathy, loss of appetite and sleeplessness from steroids.  Pictured: Sarah and her mother Nanette Newman

Sarah said that chemo is the gift that keeps on giving, as she has suffered from mouth ulcers, neuropathy, loss of appetite and sleeplessness from steroids. Pictured: Sarah and her mother Nanette Newman

I also wanted to wash my hair.

Entrepreneur and handbag designer Anya Hindmarch, a close friend, recently published a book titled If in Doubt, Wash Your Hair – A Manual for Life. Ironically, it didn’t go in vain on me. Just as a blow-dry has transformative powers to make someone look and feel better, I hoped squeaky clean hair could lift my mood and give me courage.

So I washed my hair. I was very skeptical. And a lot of denial. But at least my hair was clean.

And then I started chemo and started to wither. Chemo is like a Chernobyl going inside someone’s body. This is a brilliant, silent killer. Coward. The gift that keeps on giving. From terrible mouth ulcers and neuropathy (pain due to nerve damage) in my hands and feet, to loss of appetite and steroid sleep, every day is full of surprises. One day I went to Lou and…

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