Last week I went to a rather smart party. I wore a black satin dress, leopard-print heels, lots of eyeliner and my long, blonde hair loose in tumbling waves and curls.

Well, I say ‘my’ hair. But until the day before, my locks were hanging on a rack in a hairdressing salon in Battersea. Because the glossy, swishy mane you can see in the main picture, right, is the result of five hours of sitting in a salon, while a specialist painstakingly hot‑glued tiny bunches of real hair to my own stumpy locks.

And you know what? It was worth every minute. Not just because I love the way it looks, but because for the first time in many months, I no longer see cancer every time I look in the mirror.

Last November, I wrote in this newspaper about how I’d been diagnosed with a highly aggressive form of breast cancer. It was a terrifying shock. I thought I would die. I would need urgent treatment, including intensive chemotherapy, if I were to survive.

Last week I went to a rather smart party. I wore a black satin dress, leopard-print heels, lots of eyeliner and my long, blonde hair loose in tumbling waves and curls

Last week I went to a rather smart party. I wore a black satin dress, leopard-print heels, lots of eyeliner and my long, blonde hair loose in tumbling waves and curls

A year later, I have finally reached the end of treatment. I’ve endured eight rounds of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy with implant reconstructions, had all my lymph nodes removed from my right armpit, had three weeks of daily radiotherapy and 18 treatments with targeted immunotherapy to try to prevent the cancer from coming back.

The miraculous news is that it all seems to have worked. The chemotherapy destroyed all traces of detectable cancer before I even had surgery.

And my new lease of life makes me even more determined to wring every ounce of joy out of life.

 Some women are so scared of hair loss they refuse chemotherapy

I’ve always loved the festive period, especially making traditions for my family; and having finished my treatment, this year the whole thing feels extra special.

I’ve booked as many events as I can, from opera at Covent Garden to trips to visit friends in the country. But while I was desperate to put cancer firmly in the past, the ghost of the disease haunted me whenever I saw my reflection. For many cancer patients, the end of treatment can be an unexpectedly difficult time.

Not just because I love the way it looks, but because for the first time in many months, I no longer see cancer every time I look in the mirror

Not just because I love the way it looks, but because for the first time in many months, I no longer see cancer every time I look in the mirror

I yearn to be — and look like — the same person I was before all this happened to me.

Of course, I can never truly go back. I cannot undo the past. I bear permanent scars, and while I choose to believe I am cured, I live with the persistent undertow of worry that my cancer might come back.

Things that remind me of cancer, such as the soft joggers and tees I wore during my hours of chemo, fill me with revulsion. But the change that upset me most was my hair.

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A bald head is one of the most distinctive features of a woman going through chemotherapy for breast cancer. TV presenter Sarah Beeney recently bravely debuted her own bare scalp. But for most women, the idea of losing their hair — all their hair, including eyebrows and lashes — is one of the worst things about a breast cancer diagnosis, even more upsetting than the prospect of a mastectomy.

My consultant told me that ‘Will I lose my hair?’ is one of the first questions most of his patients ask after a diagnosis. And some women, astonishingly, even refuse chemotherapy, as the prospect of going bald is so daunting.

While I wasn’t in the least bit ashamed of having cancer, I did not ever want to look as if I had it. I had my brows tattooed at Tracie Giles’s London clinic.

I applied lash serums constantly and, during chemotherapy, I used a device called a ‘cold-cap’. This contraption cools the scalp causing blood vessels to constrict, preventing some of the toxic drugs in my system reaching the hair follicles. It worked brilliantly for quite a long time.

My mane became, by last Christmas, a cute, curly, jaw-length bob. But as the onslaught continued, I lost more and more hair, and by my last treatment in February, I was left with thin, dry, broken hair over my scalp and a few longer, wispy strands at the back which I dragged into what I optimistically thought of as a bun.

At first my follicles seemed poisoned into inactivity. But as time went on, my hair started to grow back.

It was thick, unruly and . . . very short. It sprang upwards out of my scalp at the crown, the desiccated ends formed a dandelion clock halo in the slightest breeze and tight curls crept down the nape of my neck to form a mullet.

Last summer I approached a large London salon about getting extensions, but was turned away as my hair was too short. I was bitterly disappointed. Instead, I had my hair restyled via a charity called Hair Reborn, which offers free cuts to people struggling with their hair after cancer treatment.

People told me how chic my new style was and how cool and practical during the summer’s heatwave. I reminded myself of all the beautiful and stylish women in the world with short hair, such as Audrey Hepburn and Sharon Stone. But the truth was, I missed my old hair.

Hair grows, on average, half an inch a month, or six inches a year. The thought of having to wait years to get my pre-cancer look back was depressing, especially as I turn 60 next year.

People suggested wigs, but I do a lot of yoga and I couldn’t imagine a wig surviving a downward dog. I felt that cancer had bullied me quite enough and I wasn’t going to let a disease decide my hair style.

So, when I heard about a specialist who not only offered some of the smallest, most natural-looking ‘micro-bonds’ in the UK, but who was prepared to take on the challenge of turning my stumpy locks into sumptuous waves, I rushed to make an appointment.

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The Extensionist is a tiny salon in South London which, on the day I visited, was heaving with clients. Owner Olia Cutz is a tiny, ballerina-like 37-year-old from Latvia with a sheet of pale blonde hair down to her waist — which of course, turns out to be extensions.

Her clients include twentysomething Instagram influencers, models, TV reporters, stay-at-home mums and the chic, grey-haired professional woman in the next chair to mine.

The hair Olia uses for extensions is all real, Brazilian or Slavic hair sourced from Eastern Europe. She says the war in Ukraine has hit supplies of Russian and Ukrainian locks. I was curious about where, and who, all this hair came from.

Olia reassured me that the hair she uses comes from trusted, ethical suppliers who pay women fairly. She stopped using Russian hair after the invasion of Ukraine, and never uses any from Vietnam and China where the trade, she says, is ‘brutal’.

Olia carefully colour-matches long swatches to my own hair and sets to work. In the end she applies 250 g or almost 9 oz of hair, which she divides into tiny sections, then bonds to my hair with keratin, a natural hair protein, melted with special heated pliers.

At the nape of the neck and crown she is able to add larger tape extensions. I’m in the salon from 5pm to 10pm. But luckily Olia is funny, gossipy and smart, and we have a whale of a time.

I tell her that, at my age, I’m not in the market for Rapunzel tresses, but I would like hair like fellow fiftysomething Jennifer Aniston. Olia gets it straight away.

To say I love the result is an understatement. It’s not quite perfect yet: if I don’t smooth down the bouncy new growth with serum and curl my hair, I can see where the short and long strands meet. But the longer my own hair gets, the better the effect will be.

I can’t wear my hair up, as this would reveal the shorter hairs at the nape of my neck where the extensions end, but I can wear a low ponytail or plait. In three months, I will have the bonds dissolved and the extensions repositioned closer to the roots.

Because my hair is so short, I am, says Olia, one of the most challenging transformations she has ever done. But I’m not the only post-chemo client she’s had — I nearly wrote patient instead of client, because this feels like a treatment as well as a treat.

She hates to turn anyone away and her salons offer bespoke human hair replacement systems — a kind of super-wig — for women who have lost all their hair.

The response has been overwhelmingly positive. My husband loves it. ‘You look like you again,’ he says.

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My friends are thrilled. ‘You look amazing!’ ‘Can I touch it?’ ‘Can you style it?’ ‘It looks just like your own hair!’

At a recent check-up the nurse couldn’t believe that I’d had chemo — ‘You have so much hair.’ I confessed it wasn’t mine — though Olia tells me off for this. ‘I tell my clients, of course it is your hair. You paid for it!’ she laughs.

And while short hair can be incredibly elegant, there’s a reason I never chose to cut my hair in the past. Swishy locks make me feel a million times prettier and more confident.

Depending on how fast your hair grows, it can take, says Olia, anything up to two years before women feel they don’t need their extensions any more.

However, the hair can be reused repeatedly, and it’s possible to get addicted to the youthful volume they offer to mid-life women, even when your own hair is quite long.

The first night I find it hard to sleep on the nubbly knots of keratin bonds all over my scalp, and panic I’ve done the wrong thing. But by the next night, I barely notice the sensation.

Maintenance is quite straightforward. I can wash my hair as normal, but must not go to bed with it wet, lest it become matted. I should also plait it before sleep for the same reason.

The biggest downside of my new hair is the cost. Real hair is expensive, and application is time-consuming, which means extensions start at around £450.

But because I needed so much hair, a transformation like mine costs about £800 — though this is similar or less than the cost of a good human hair wig.

Three-monthly adjustments cost from £250, though mine would likely be double that.

When my hair is long enough, I plan to donate my extensions to a charity making wigs for children affected by cancer.

And yes, I know this is crazy money during a cost-of-living crisis, but the effect on my self‑esteem is priceless.

Plus, I’ve realised that I saved hundreds of pounds during treatment because I stopped getting my regular cut and colour (root cover and highlights) for over a year — and I was paying about £170 a time.

Last year, my life as I knew it came to a juddering halt. Now I want to embrace every second of 2023, swishing my hair as I go.


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