Ovarian cancer, hair loss and stylish wigs

July 21, 2021

Arlene Nelson does not like to lounge around.

“I go skiing, scuba diving, hiking, biking, traveling and I do yoga and garden,” Nelson said. “I am out and about all the time.”

Arlene Nelson and her husband, Bill, hiking a mountain
Arlene Nelson was diagnosed with ovarian cancer after she felt sluggish while hiking a Colorado fourteener. She is pictured with her husband, Bill, hiking in Colorado. Photo courtesy Arlene Nelson.

The 58-year-old knew something was wrong, though, while she and her husband were hiking a fourteener and she started to fall behind.

“I’m competitive and he was beating me,” Nelson said. “I knew that was not normal.”

Silent Killer

Ovarian cancer is called a silent killer because subtle symptoms like pelvic pressure, bloating, exhaustion, changes in bladder functions or loss of appetite, can easily be confused with any number of benign illnesses. Thankfully, Nelson is in tune with her body. The fatigue she felt spurred her to make an appointment with Dr. Jill Alldredge, a gynecologic oncology surgeon at UCHealth Highlands Ranch Hospital.

“It was a no brainer after that,” Nelson said. “I could only see her eyes because of the mask but I knew instantly that I could trust her.”

The feeling was mutual.

“Arlene had a positive outlook from the beginning,” said Alldredge. Even so, there was no time to waste. As with all her patients, Alldredge scheduled ample appointment time with Nelson. She drew pictures, pulled up images, answered every question posed and shared her treatment advice.

Dr. Jill Alldredge
Dr. Jill Alldredge

“I am a strong believer in using very deliberate language so the patient is armed with the details,” Alldredge said. “Based on scans and other information, cancer was a probability and we needed to perform a hysterectomy and start her on chemotherapy quickly.”

“My head was spinning but I didn’t blink twice,” said Nelson who also tested positive for the BRCA1 gene mutation. Normally, this gene would make proteins to fix damaged DNA. When it’s mutated, it does the opposite. This meant, after the surgery and six cycles of chemotherapy, Nelson would have to take additional medication to prevent recurrence.

Good hair days

Nelson has been doing hair since she was a teenager and has owned her own hair salon for two decades. She has shaped and cut, trimmed and colored thousands of heads of hair. She’s shaved an occasional head or two for women losing their hair from chemotherapy and fitted many wigs, including for her mother when she went through chemo. Wigs, she said, vary in terms of quality. Either way, when Nelson gets her hands on one, she makes sure to cut and style the hair so it moves naturally and fits the person’s face. She makes sure to teach the individual wearing the wig styling tricks so that it doesn’t look like a wig.

When Nelson’s locks began falling out in big chunks, she knew it was time to shave her head completely. Her own reaction came as a shock.

“I’m not a vain person, but I lost my hair, eyelashes and eyebrows,” Nelson said. “Cancer and chemo are hard enough but this was tough.”

Nelson has vowed since to fit and style more wigs for folks like her.

“I feel a calling,” Nelson said.

“I’ll be back”

Alldredge calls Nelson “a poster child for early cancer detection.”

Arlene Nelson with her son Ryker
Arlene Nelson with her son, Ryker.

“Arlene noticed the symptoms that can often be chalked up to menopause and got a workup right away,” said Alldredge. “Unfortunately, she is in the minority as the initial signs of ovarian cancer often get overlooked.”

Some 80% of ovarian cancers are caught after they have reached stage three or four. Stage one or two cancers have much higher cure rates. Alldredge encourages everyone to see a provider if symptoms persist for more than two weeks.

In Nelson’s case, her recovery was also buoyed by stellar family support that included her son and husband.

Nelson is slowly getting her strength back now that she’s finished her latest challenge.

“Chemo was my fourteener this year,” said Nelson. “But I’ll be back.”