Chemotherapy and Hair Loss: What to Expect

Research shows that one of the most dreaded side effects of cancer, among both men and women, is loss of hair. People can be scared of an outward sign that seems to announce their cancer to the world. Chemotherapy affects everyone differently. Even though there is sometimes ample information provided by medical professionals and lots of products available to help combat or lessen the intensity of the hair loss process, such as chemo beanies, many people still do not fully understand what to expect from chemo in regards to hair loss.

Why does hair loss happen?

During chemotherapy, cytostatic drugs are administered into your body. These are drugs that are designed to affect cancer cells, but in reality, will affect all cells in the body and some more than others.

The somatic (bodily) cells at the most risk of being affected are the lining of the mouth, the stomach, and the hair follicles, because of how quickly they multiply just like the cancer cells. The normal cells, however, will grow back, which means most chemo side effects are temporary. Hair loss occurs when the chemo attacks the hair follicle cells that make hair grow, and they stop functioning.

Some chemo drugs only affect the hair on your head. Others are more intense and can affect the hair in the eyebrows, eyelashes, pubic area, legs, arms, or underarms.

Different chemo drugs produce different levels of hair loss. Hair loss can also vary depending on the dosage and class of chemotherapy drugs administered to you, and the amount of time in between treatments. If treatments are administered weekly in small doses, the amount of hair loss may be minimized. Other treatments might be scheduled every month or so and administered with higher doses of chemotherapy. These higher-dose treatments can cause more hair loss.

Radiation therapy, another form of cancer treatment, normally only causes hair loss around the area where it is applied. If, for example, radiation therapy is used to treat breast cancer, the possibility of hair loss only extends to the hair on the chest area. However, if radiation is used to treat cancer in the brain, total hair loss is very common.

Can I prevent hair loss?

There is currently no treatment that will guarantee protection from hair loss. Some patients choose to use scalp cooling caps, or scalp hypothermia, to mitigate the risk of hair loss. Wearing these close-fitting caps that are cooled by a chilled liquid during treatment can slow blood flow to the scalp, which can lead to a less intense hair loss experience.

Studies conducted on scalp hypothermia report that it is somewhat effective in most patients, but that there is a small risk of cancer recurring in the scalp because it was not fully exposed to the chemotherapy. Patients who have undergone scalp hypothermia during chemo do not report a very pleasant experience, citing headaches and feeling uncomfortably cold.

Patients have also reported that using a substance designed for hair regrowth, such as Rogaine, before and during treatment will not affect how much hair is lost but can help with an easier regrowth period.

Managing hair loss before treatment

  • Be gentle to your hair; avoid harsh dyes and heat styling.
  • Consider cutting hair: Hair loss is less noticeable when hair is shorter.
  • Start planning for different kinds of head coverings during and after treatment.

Managing hair loss during treatment

  • Be kind and gentle to your remaining hair.
  • Consider shaving your head to avoid losing clumps of hair rapidly.
  • Protect your scalp from the sun while going outside.

Managing hair loss after treatment

  • Continue gentle hair care; your scalp is still sensitive.
  • Be patient while waiting for hair to regrow.

Chemotherapy can be a difficult time in anyone’s life, and managing hair loss is an essential part of making the best of such a hard situation.

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