If you have been diagnosed with cancer and are about to undergo chemotherapy, you are probably facing a lot of very real and valid fears. Although there are many different concerns which accompany a cancer diagnosis, many people worry most about the side effects of their treatment. Both men and women report hair loss as one of the side effects that they fear most after being diagnosed with cancer. You may not have even thought about how important your hair is before, but faced with losing it you may find it to be one of the things that bother you most about your treatment.
Although hair loss is likely with chemotherapy treatment, it does not happen for everyone. Whether or not you experience hair loss depends mostly on the type and dose of medication you receive, factors which are mostly out of your control. However, whether or not you can maintain your self-esteem and present a healthy body image after hair loss depends a lot on your own attitude and the support you receive from family and friends.
Why does it occur?
Chemotherapy is a very powerful treatment that attacks the cancer cells in your body. However, it is very difficult to localize these drugs to one specific location, and so unfortunately the drugs attack non-cancerous cells in your body as well, including those in your hair roots.
What should you expect?
Typically, hair loss will begin one to three weeks after you start treatment. It may fall out very quickly in clumps or gradually. You’ll probably notice accumulations of loose hair on your pillow, in your hairbrush, and in your sink or shower drain. Your scalp may feel tender during this time.
Hair loss will continue throughout your treatment and sometimes for a few weeks after you stop. Fortunately, hair loss from chemotherapy treatment is usually temporary, and you can expect hair to regrow anywhere from three to ten months after your treatment ends. However, you may notice temporary changes in the shade or texture of your new hair. It might be curlier than it was before, or it could be gray until the cells that control the pigment begin to function again.
How severe your hair loss will be will depend on the type and dosage of medication used. Some chemotherapy drugs are more likely than others to cause hair loss, and depending on the dose you may experience anything from minor thinning to complete baldness. Generally, hair loss does not become noticeable to others until you have lost about 50% of your hair. To find out what to expect with your dosage, talk to your doctor or nurse with questions.
Although most people associate hair loss with the hair on their scalp, chemotherapy may cause you to experience hair loss all over the body. You may notice that your eyelash, eyebrow, armpit, pubic and other body hair is falling out as well. This is totally normal, but feel free to talk to your doctor or nurse if you have concerns.
Can hair loss be prevented?
There is no way to guarantee that your hair won’t fall out during chemotherapy. However, several treatments have been studied as possible ways to prevent hair loss. Although none of the following are 100% effective, some patients have found success in using these remedies.
- Scalp hypothermia (cryotherapy): During chemotherapy, place ice packs or other similarly cold items on your head to slow the blood flow to your scalp. This makes it more difficult for the drugs to reach your scalp and thus less likely that they will have an effect on your scalp. However, the procedure stops not only the side effects but also the therapeutic effects of the drug in the area. This means that it presents a small risk of cancer recurring in your scalp, as the area doesn’t receive the same dose of the chemotherapy drugs as the rest of your body. Studies of this treatment have found it shows some results in the majority of people who have tried it. Patients who have used this technique report feeling uncomfortably cold and having headaches.
- Minoxidil (Rogaine): Minoxidil, more commonly known as Rogaine, is a drug approved for pattern hair loss in men and women. Applying the drug to your scalp before and during chemotherapy isn’t likely to prevent hair loss, but some research shows it may speed up hair regrowth. However, more research is needed to understand the full effects.
How to make the best of it
One of the most important factors while undergoing any cancer treatment is your own attitude. In addition to the fact that a positive attitude has been shown to have positive effects on treatment, it also makes it much easier for you to deal with your situation. The more positive you try to be, the less likely you are to become depressed and bogged down by your disease. It is important to try not to let the cancer control you, and to you’re your life as normally as possible.
Although this can be difficult, family and friends are a great support network to help you feel your best emotionally as well as physically. Surround yourself with people who love and care about you, and don’t be afraid to lean on them for support when you need it. Also be sure to express your fears and problems to your doctor, and consider talking to a therapist or someone who specializes in working with cancer patients to help you dear with your emotions. For tips on finding a cancer therapist, visit this site see our blog post (link to post)
In addition to these emotional treatments, there are also many important actions you can take to help minimize the anger and fear associated with your hair loss. Although it can’t be prevented, it can certainly be managed. Follow these simple steps to help make your hair loss as minor an issue as possible.
- Be gentle to your hair. Get in the habit of being kind to your hair. Don’t bleach, color or perm your hair, as this can weaken it and make it more likely to fall out. Air-dry your hair as much as possible and avoiding heating devices such as curling or straightening irons. Working to strengthen your hair now may make it more likely to stay in your head during treatment.
- Consider cutting your hair. Short hair often looks fuller than longer hair, which means that a hair cut may make your hair loss less noticeable as it begins to fall out. Also, going short might help you make the transition to total hair loss.
- Plan ahead for a head covering. It’s better to start thinking about wigs, scarves and other head coverings before treatment than after you already need them. Whether you choose to wear a head covering to conceal your hair loss is entirely your choice, but it’s easier to plan for it now than later. Ask your doctor to write you a prescription for a wig, the cost of which may be covered by your insurance.
- Baby your remaining hair. Continue your gentle hair strategies throughout your treatment. Try things like using a satin pillowcase, a soft brush and a gentle shampoo. Wash your hair only as often as necessary. All of these things are more gentle on your hair and will make it less likely to fall out.
- Consider shaving your head. Some people report that their scalp is itchy, sensitive and irritated during chemotherapy and while their hair is falling out. Shaving your head can reduce the irritation and make you more comfortable, as well as save you the embarrassment of shedding. Some men shave their heads because they feel it looks better than the patchy hair loss. Also, a shaved head might make it easier to secure a wig or hairpiece.
- Protect your scalp. Make sure to use sunscreen or a head covering if you’re going to expose your scalp to the sun or cold air. Your scalp will probably be sensitive during treatment, so extreme temperatures may easily irritate it. Having no hair or less hair may make you feel cold, and a hair covering may alleviate some of this discomfort.
- Continue gentle hair care. Your new hair growth will be especially fragile to the damage caused by styling products and heating devices. Hold off on coloring or bleaching your new hair for at least six months. Processing could damage your hair and irritate your scalp.
- Be patient. It’s likely that your new hair may take some time to come back, and it may look and feel different than it did before. Try to remember that growth takes time, and that this stage will pass eventually.
Covering your head
Choosing to cover your head as your hair falls out is an individual decision. Many women associate their hair with femininity and health, so they choose to maintain that look by wearing a wig. Others choose hats and scarves, and still others choose not to cover their heads at all.
Ask your doctor or hospital social worker about resources in your area to help you find the best head covering for you. Look Good…Feel Better is a free program that provides hair and beauty makeovers and tips for cancer patients. These classes are offered in various locations throughout the United States. Many classes are offered through the American Cancer Society. Look Good…Feel Better has special programs for women, men and teens.
Radiation Therapy and Hair Loss
Radiation therapy can also cause hair loss. Like chemotherapy, radiation attacks quickly growing cells in your body, which includes but is not limited to cancer cells. However, unlike chemotherapy, radiation affects only the specific area to where the treatment is concentrated. Therefore, if you have radiation on your head, it’s likely that you will lose the hair on your head.
As with chemotherapy, your hair usually begins growing back after treatments end. Whether it grows back to its original thickness and fullness depends on your treatment. Different types of radiation and different doses will have different effects on your hair. The highest doses of radiation can sometimes cause permanent hair loss. Talk to your doctor about what medication and dose you’ll be receiving so you know what to expect.