As a veteran TV news anchor, Nichole Berlie knows a lot about hair. Viewers react to it. Television executives comment on it. A simple change in style is guaranteed to be analyzed on social media.
“I would flat iron my hair,” said Berlie, a daytime anchor at Nexstar’s Chicago-based cable channel NewsNation. “It’s naturally wavy. It’s not naturally straight. There was a point I do remember where I wanted to wear it curly. That was kind of a thing where it was like, ‘Is this OK? Will this be accepted?’”
Such deliberations seem trivial since Berlie, 46, learned in October that she has breast cancer.
Berlie has been undergoing chemotherapy treatments ahead of surgery. Once she chose her course of treatment, she delivered a message to viewers about her diagnosis and what it would mean to her appearance, especially the long black hair that gave her a youthful look after 20 years in the TV news business.
“I am going to look very different and it will be an adjustment for you as a viewer and also for me,” Berlie said at the end of her program on Dec. 20. “So I want to give you some warning because it’s going to be a big change. But it’s only hair and it’s going to grow back.”
Going public about her illness was not an easy choice for Berlie, a Lincoln, Neb., native who never shared much about herself on her straight news program or even on social media platforms. “For me to do that was a big deal,” she said.
Berlie’s next decision was even bigger. While TV anchors have openly discussed their health challenges on the air, Berlie’s revelation came with a choice on how to present herself going forward. Female newscasters being treated for cancer or alopecia have gone on-camera bald before, but in an industry where female talent is constantly judged, such a move is rare and risky.
When discussing her cancer treatment with her doctors, Berlie considered using a cold cap, designed to mitigate hair loss in patients.
“It’s almost like putting dry ice on your head and kind of puts the follicles to sleep as the chemo is being administered,” Berlie said. “It’s a pretty significant expense and insurance doesn’t tend to cover it. But I thought, ‘I’m in an industry where how you appear matters. I’m in people’s living rooms every day. I think that’s probably the best option for me.’”
Berlie’s oncologist wanted her to take a cocktail of cancer-fighting drugs that had a better success rate. The course of treatment would also make using a cold cap less effective in deterring hair loss.
“I thought, what is my ultimate goal here?” Berlie said. “To keep my hair or to kill the cancer and live? I’m choosing the more aggressive treatment.”
After the treatment began, Berlie started to lose her hair. She sheared the long black tresses that had been her signature look. “That was anxiety-inducing,” she said. “I’ve always had long hair. Then all of a sudden I had this little pixie cut.”
As Berlie’s hair continued to thin, she decided to shave her head. “It was coming out so rapidly,” she said. “Shaving it — that was nothing. It was almost a relief.”
Berlie had never worn a wig and was not about to start. She decided to do her three-hour daily newscast, “NewsNation Now,” with her bare scalp under the bright studio lights. “Almost from the beginning I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll just go bald,’” she said. “It’s just what it is.”
Berlie’s personal manager, whose wife battled breast cancer, supported her hair choice. So did her bosses at NewsNation, where she has worked since its launch in 2020.
“Her going on the air bald takes a lot of courage,” said Michael Corn, president of news programming for NewsNation. “I didn’t know how the audience would react, but I also didn’t care. I knew it was something Nichole wanted to do in terms of being authentic about what she was experiencing right now.”
When Berlie showed up for her program after treatments began, crew members, realizing her immune system was compromised, wore masks. They honored her request not to do a sweeping shot around the studio before commercial breaks. “I just was sensitive about seeing the full 360 view of Nichole’s bald head,” she said.
Over time, Berlie has become more relaxed with her new look. “I’ve always thought I had a huge head,” she said. “Turns out I don’t. It has a nice little shape to it. We put a little powder on it. Sometimes I just say, ‘Let it shine.’”
Viewers can be the harshest judges. But Berlie said she has not seen or heard a hint of criticism.
“We have an assignment desk, so I have no idea if people have called to ask, ‘Why is this lady bald?’ I’m sure they’ve probably taken some,” she said. “But I’ve received zero negative feedback, which has been great. I’ve received notes, messages and cards from people who are wishing me well and wanting to support me to people going through cancer themselves and just saying, ‘Thank you so much for doing this.’”
Other women who have taken the same route with their hair have praised Berlie. Support groups for breast cancer patients have reached out to her.
“I saw her on the air and told her she’s not by herself,” said Valeda Keys, who heads the patient support organization Valeda’s Hope in Brentwood, Mo. “It tells women that you’re going to lose your hair, but keep doing what you’re doing.”
Berlie also knows she is not alone in the TV news business. Several weeks after Berlie revealed her illness, CNN senior national correspondent and anchor Sara Sidner told viewers she is battling Stage 3 breast cancer and would continue to work as she undergoes treatment.
“I happened to have CNN on in my office with the volume up,” Berlie recalled. “All of a sudden I heard her say, ‘I have something I have to announce.’ I can’t remember how she started it but I immediately zeroed in and I knew what she was about to say. It was just crazy. I knew it and I couldn’t believe it. But I was so proud of her. I was proud to know there’s another person who is going through the journey, who’s also working and is sharing it with people. It’s a very personal message to share.”