In October 2016, just before she turned 23, college student Kelli Rotondo was gifted a shampoo and conditioner set by a close family member. Rotondo, who admits to not splurging too much when it comes to her hair care routine, was excited and grateful to test out some new salon-quality products on her head of long, beautiful hair. She didn't know she would only be able to use them just a handful times before her life changed forever.
To some, April 13, 2018, marked just another spring day that came and went. To Rotondo, 24, it marked the one-year anniversary of the end of her journey as a cancer patient. A few days later, Rotondo gathered with her family and close friends to celebrate her recovery. With her chin length bob and black t-shirt embroidered with “survivor” in gold, it’s difficult to imagine the college student was fighting for her life just one year ago.
Reflecting on her cancer journey, Rotondo describes the many harsh realities all cancer patients often face. The common side effects of her six-week chemotherapy treatment included nausea, loss of appetite, fatigue, and weight loss. The side effect that impacted her the most, however, was the hair loss. After being diagnosed with stage I B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma in the fall of 2016, the doctors told her she had a 90 percent chance of losing her hair during treatment.
“My hair was actually a big part of my identity. Everywhere I’d go, people would be like ‘wow, you have such thick, long hair.’ I never was the type of girl to pull off a short haircut, or at least I thought I couldn’t,” Rotondo explains. “I always had ridiculously long hair. It was never even shoulder length. It was always past my shoulders and it’s kind of how I defined myself.”
Afraid of losing the hair she valued so much and how drastically her appearance would change, she held out the hope of somehow maintaining her long brunette strands. They fell to her waist at just about 24 inches long.
“I was in denial when they told me I was going to lose my hair because I remember the doctor saying that some people are different...and I hung on to that,” Rotondo says.
Once she began the first of six rounds of chemotherapy, her worst fears became a reality. She started to notice large chunks of hair falling from her head.
“I got into the shower and I ran my hand through my hair and I realized that there was a clump of hair in my hand,” Rotondo says.
With every shampoo, her once-thick mane became more sparse and each morning she woke up to fallen strands of hair on her pillow. Still hopeful that she could salvage the hair she had left, Rotondo traded in her length for a side-parted lob with an undercut.
After a few more months of treatment, the hair loss had become more and more noticeable. Rotondo decided to ask her boyfriend to shave her entire head. Several chemotherapy sessions later, Rotondo also began losing her eyelashes and eyebrows.
After years of following the same hour-long styling routine and maintaining annual trims, Rotondo experienced the reality of being bald for the first time in her life. What followed was a mix of emotions. Though hair loss seemed like a small price to pay for survival, she also struggled with seeing herself in the mirror without hair each morning. She began to dream of the day she could once again brush her long locks.
Like many cancer patients, Rotondo leaned on scarves and beanies throughout most of her treatment. It wasn’t until a former cancer patient gifted her a human hair wig that she began to feel like herself again.
“I became best friends with my wigs. My wigs were my life," she remembers.
In the months that followed, wigs became Rotondo's safe haven. Whether spending time with friends or heading to a doctors appointment, she would rarely step out in public without wearing one. With her human hair wig—a dark brown hue that almost matched the length of her pre-cancer hair—she was able to wear different styles again. Her signature style? Loose mermaid waves created with a flat iron.
When her human hair wig finally became unwearable, she opted for a blonde synthetic wig with chunky highlights at the crown. For Rotondo, who’s always wanted to try full-on blonde, the wig was a significant confidence boost.
“The wigs gave me a feel of what it used to be like when I had hair... I could style these wigs and that was important to me. I would never buy a wig that’s not heat resistant,” she says.
A month after ending her treatment in May of 2017, Rotondo finally began to see hair growth. Though she still preferred wearing her wig most days and did not enjoy her time with super short hair, she was happy she got to experience having it. It was something she would never have done on her own.
“I kept telling myself, 'I’ll never have this short hair again.' I remember I used to go to the hair salon and say, ‘Please cut the least amount of hair you can’...I would be very paranoid that they would cut off more than I wanted," she explains. "Losing my hair gave me the chance to experience this short hair because I’ll never experience it again, hopefully. It’s fun to try new things, that’s how I see that.”
When asked to share her top piece of advice with women who are facing hair loss from cancer (or the aftermath of hair loss), Rotondo says to be prepared for anything.
“If the doctor says there’s a 90 percent chance or even an 80 percent chance you’re going to lose your hair, there’s always a possibility that you won’t, but I would say act on the possibility that you will," she says. "I wish I dyed my hair some crazy color before I lost it because I was going to lose it anyway.”
Above all, Rotondo advises fellow cancer patients not to get discouraged when they see themselves with no hair. After a year in remission, her strands fall just below her chin. She now feels comfortable living completely wig-free.
“It’s very upsetting at first to see yourself without hair and without eyelashes or eyebrows, but I would say to not get discouraged because this year went by so fast and my hair is already back to the point where I’m comfortable," Rotondo says. "Go outside and do what you want despite what your hair looks like because you’re more than just your hair. That’s what this kind of showed me...You’re always you and that will still be there when you get through it.”
Over a year has passed since Rotondo was declared cancer-free. Her naturally curly, dark brown hair now sits just above her shoulders and she’s finally finished the shampoo and conditioner bottles from the beginning of her cancer journey. A good shampoo may be a daily task most people don’t think twice about, but it’s the part of Rotondo's hair care routine that she feels most grateful for.