Article: Eyebrows are my bridge back to normality

Original Article by The Irish Times

Colette GahanColette Gahan (left) lost her hair after breast cancer treatment.

In the spring of 2009, my search finally ended in the Blackrock Clinic in Dublin. Pushing back his chair quietly to watch my reaction, the specialist asked if I had ever considered getting new eyebrows.

Until that moment, I didn’t realise they were missing.

How did it work? Cartoon-type pictures shot through my head. Elevated eyebrows to cope with surprise days like today? Happy to suit my mood? Maybe even hide my crow’s feet and turn back the years? Instead I just asked, “Can you really do it?”

A few years earlier, after a particularly difficult treatment for a second breast cancer, I started to lose my hair for the third time. Almost bald again, I had virtually no eyebrows.

To stop people staring, I tied a pretty scarf around my head but a blank empty face still looked back at me in the mirror. The specialists I consulted told me that two lots of chemotherapy had been too much and my hair follicles had died. I was secretly hoping they were wrong. Perhaps the follicles were just resting and would grow back again thick and shiny.

Not long after, I found a consultant in Blackrock who started me on a new trial of medication.

Surprisingly, as the months passed, I responded well to the treatment, even growing my curls back, though they were not as good as before. There could be no return to those years, but gradually I stopped being self-conscious about my hair. Now on a routine check a year later, without warning, I was being thrown another lifeline.

As we sat and talked that afternoon, the consultant explained how eyebrows shape the face, adding depth, sparkle and character.

My questions began to flow. Will it work? Does it hurt? How much? What are the complications? What is involved in the procedure? Can I shape them? Colour them? What if one takes and one doesn’t? How long off work? If I look like everyone else, can I be sure there are no more cancer cells inside of me?

Four weeks later, I arrived at the clinic in Blackrock at 9am. The staff were relaxed and welcoming. At 9.30am, I was given a concoction of tablets and led to the first room. Doors opened with electronic key cards. Hi- tech machinery flashed and beeped under subtle lighting, highlighting a sense of cutting edge technology.

I sat on a stool as the consultant, head nurse and four technicians gathered to study my eyebrows. No time for small talk now – the serious work had begun.

The technician who would carry out my transplant took a black pen and started to draw in my eyebrows. She passed it occasionally to the consultant and head nurse who took their turn, serious now, erasing, re-drawing, sighing, discussing, standing back to examine, coming in close to exclaim.

The consultant explained how a vital aspect of an eyebrow transplant is to follow the natural hair direction very closely and then held a mirror up to my face. Heavy black brows glared back at me. He reassured me that it looked strange because more hairs than necessary are transplanted as not all of them will take.

Before I moved to the next room, I was given an injection to numb the area and a small strip of skin was removed from the back of my head to test its appropriateness for hair follicles.

As I lay face down, the staff extended the graft site at the back of my head to about three inches. This new strip of skin disappeared through a sliding door where someone quickly created micro-grafts containing one or occasionally two hairs.Wound sutured now, I turned over as the main light was dimmed and two technicians injected local anaesthetic around my eyebrows.

Then it began. Using very fine microscopes, almost 400 micro-grafts were placed into carefully made incisions along each eyebrow. I felt nothing. The staff worked steadily, occasionally speaking quietly to each other. As the sedation took effect, I drifted off marvelling at how quickly the micro-grafts were produced.

Almost three hours later, it was over and I left for home, prima donna style, head down in the back of a taxi.

It hurt like hell. I sprayed salty solution on to my eyebrows every 15 minutes as instructed to get relief and slept in an armchair that night to avoid friction.

Two days later, I returned to work with swollen eyes and slight bruising. Driving in I rehearsed the story I was going to use to explain my appearance. Allergies? Accident? Virus? No excuse for my sudden over-growth of thick black eyebrows though. The day proceeded and no one noticed. I was deflated and delighted all at once.

Over the next few weeks, most of the transplanted hair fell out and eventually the transplanted follicles began to grow three months later. Frequent follow-up visits to the clinic reassured me that all was well.

I am enjoying my new brows. Care is minimal. A good beautician cuts them every two weeks. As my head hair is curly, if my new brows get too long they start to curl in memory of their former dwelling.

In the shopping centre I admire all the beautiful brows walking past me. I am confident. I like what I see in the mirror – this is my bridge back to normality. Gradually I accept the change.

Now, almost two years on, I don’t think much about them at all. That is the way it should be. In a busy hospital you often won’t get the type of advice you need to help you with a problem. I would advise anyone to start looking themselves as there is an answer to almost everything nowadays.