My pictures of cancer hair loss courage
Lauren Clemmet stared at the girl in the mirror. A bloated size 16 with no hair, no eyebrows and no eyelashes, and a grey pallor. She looked as sickly as she felt.
Lauren, then 18, felt her eyes well up. She'd been battling cancer for two months and it looked like she was losing the fight.
"I didn't recognise myself," Lauren says. "But there was no hiding from it any more - I was a cancer sufferer."
In that moment, just as despair could have overwhelmed her, Lauren picked up her digital camera. She pointed it at herself and pushed the button, capturing forever the moment she finally faced up to the disease that could kill her.
"I wanted to make sure that even if I recovered, I never forgot that moment and lived every day to the full," she says.
Lauren had started feeling ill six months earlier, while in the second year of her A-levels. She was rundown and had swollen glands, so she went to see her GP who referred her to her local hospital, near Biggleswade, Bedfordshire, for tests.
There she had blood tests and, more worryingly, a biopsy on her lymph glands.
At worst, she thought it was glandular fever. But three weeks later she returned to the hospital for her results.
Lauren and her parents listened in shock as the doctor explained she had Hodgkin's lymphoma, a rare form of cancer that affects the immune system and kills over 300 people every year.
"I felt so numb. My parents tried to keep it together, but from their pale faces and shaky voices, I could tell they were struggling not to break down," she says.
"Bizarrely, I was more concerned for them. It seemed as though this cancer thing had nothing to do with me and was happening to someone else."
Lauren was told that she'd need to start chemotherapy to blast the cancerous cells invading her body.
"Immediately, I asked about my hair," she says. "I wasn't overly vain, but I loved mine. It was long, wavy and brown and I didn't want to lose it."
Despite being a close family, Lauren and her parents drove home in silence.
"It seemed to take forever. None of us spoke. We didn't know what to say to each other," she explains. "I hated the thought of having to break the news to my older sister Hannah, then 21, who was studying at university ¿in Birmingham 100 miles away. We were so close - this would devastate her."
Once home, Lauren went out to the summer house in the garden alone and cried for hours.
"I knew my mum would have given anything to have come out and cuddled me," says Lauren, now 29. "But thankfully she sensed I wanted to be left alone.
"Over the next few days we hardly discussed it. Cancer was a word none of us wanted to utter."
A week before Lauren was due to start chemo, she had a haircut.
"I wanted a Keira Knightley-style crop. I wanted to be ready if I did lose my hair," she says.
On July 6, 2005, Lauren started the treatment she hoped would save her life.
"Medicine was pumped into my body for an hour," she says. "I was terrified, but it wasn't as awful as I'd expected it to be."
But one morning, just a month later, Lauren's hair started falling out.
"I was washing it and noticed loads of strands coming out through my fingers," she says. "I knew it would probably happen, but that moment was just awful. Still, I refused to cry.
"From then on, I lost more hair almost every day. Then my eyebrows and eyelashes fell out. I tried to be brave, but when I was alone, I'd sob. I felt so angry at life. I hid away from the world - I felt like everyone was staring at me," she adds.
"The steroids I was taking made me bloat from a size 10-12 to a size 16, so I covered my body up in loose outfits.
"Cancer was stripping my femininity away. I couldn't bear to look in mirrors. I'd avoid them at all costs."
To cope, Lauren invested in a wig.
"I couldn't control losing my hair, but I could control what it looked like," she explains.
Accompanied by her mum, she visited a local hairdresser who specialised in fitting wigs for cancer patients. Lauren had the last remaining patches of her hair shaved off, then had a long brown wig fitted.
"I looked at my reflection and gave a nervous smile," says Lauren. "It looked great. I was worried people would know it was a wig, but Mum said I looked gorgeous."
Back home, Lauren decided she was ready to take control and confront how cancer was affecting her. She took off her wig and stared at her reflection for several minutes, then reached for her camera.
"Cancer had brought me to the darkest place. But there and then I vowed that I would get better. It wouldn't beat me," she says.
"With my wig, I felt like I could face the world again. I'd passed three A-levels and was due to start a year- long art and design foundation course at Loughborough University, and then go on to do a fine arts degree.
"I'm sure my parents wanted me to stay at home so they could look after me, but they knew I didn't want to lose my independence."
Lauren told the university about her diagnosis, but kept it a secret from her fellow students.
"Everyone assumed my wig was my real hair," she says.
Her chemotherapy finished in February 2006. A month later - a year since she'd first been diagnosed - Lauren was told she was in remission.
"Of course I was happy, but I didn't feel cured. The cancer had taken my hair, figure and femininity and I still looked like a cancer patient," she says.
To mark the occasion, Lauren took another photograph.
"It was exactly a year to the day that I'd taken the first one. The difference was incredible. My hair was growing back. It was fine and wispy, but it was there," she says.
"My eyelashes and eyebrows were back and I'd lost some weight since coming off the steroids. I could see a glimmer of the old 'me' in the new photograph. I started crying when I compared the two pictures - but they were happy tears."
Seeing the visual difference Lauren decided to take a photograph on the same day every year to chart her recovery.
"Those pictures became my coping mechanism," she says. By the time she took the fourth anniversary photo last summer, Lauren's brown hair was chin-length, her cheeks were rosy... she looked well.
"When I had cancer, I wanted to fade into the background," she says. "As I started to look like myself again, I became more outgoing. I loved brushing my hair, wearing make-up and buying new clothes. I felt like me again."
Her last picture was taken this August. "It was just after my graduation and I was so happy," says Lauren. "My hair had grown back and I was almost a size 10, too - I was me again!"
Lauren decided to enter her photos into the Art Liberating Lives exhibition backed by the cancer charity Sue Ryder Care, which opens in London this month.
"From the moment I shaved my head I never wanted to forget what I'd gone through," she says.
"When I look at the pictures now, it's still surreal, but I also feel proud of myself for having the strength to not let cancer rule my life. Even so, it has definitely shaped who I am today. I now realise I have to make the most of my life and I'm more determined than ever to become a successful artist."
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