You never really understand how important your hair is to you until you start losing it.
If you have cancer and are going through chemotherapy soon, losing your hair might be a very real possibility. Whether you're a man or a woman, hair loss has been reported as one of the biggest fears for those diagnosed with cancer.
In this article, we'll tell you everything you need to know about chemotherapy hair loss, including:
Chemotherapy is a very powerful drug treatment that uses chemicals to kill fast-growing cells in the body. It is most often used to treat cancer — one of the fastest-growing cells that can form in the body.
It's used in different ways to kill cancer cells:
It's also used for other conditions, such as bone marrow diseases and immune system disorders.
Although it does help kill toxic cells in the body, it, unfortunately, attacks other cells in your body, like your hair roots. This doesn't just affect the hair on your head. It can also cause your eyelash, eyebrow, armpit, pubic, and other body hair to fall out as well.
When beginning treatment, most people wonder: does chemotherapy always cause hair loss?
It's important to note that not all chemotherapy treatments are the same. Some chemotherapy drugs cause hair loss more than others. Some might just lead to a little bit of thinning, while others might result in total baldness.
Ask your doctor how your chemotherapy treatment might affect your hair.
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The good news is that most hair loss caused by chemotherapy is temporary. After your treatment ends, most people begin regrowing their hair in around three to six months.
But if you're curious about what the timeline is with chemotherapy and hair loss, let's take a look at what you can expect.
Hair will usually begin to start falling out around two to four weeks after your chemotherapy treatment starts. It might fall out quickly (in clumps of hair) or gradually. You might notice more hair on your pillow, hairbrush, shower, and sink. Your scalp might also begin to feel tender.
The hair loss will continue as long as you are still undergoing chemotherapy and a few weeks to a few months afterward. Depending on the treatment, you might experience some thinning to total baldness.
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Once your hair begins to grow back, you might notice that your hair is slightly different than the hair you had before. It could be a different texture or colour or even become curlier than it was before. You might also find that it is gray but will turn back to normal after the cells that control colour pigments begin to function again.
All of these changes are usually temporary.
Here's an overview of a chemotherapy hair loss timeline after finishing treatment, but remember that this is just an approximation and differs from person to person:
Ask a doctor for a more specific timeline for your unique situation.
Before we get into different ways that can help prevent hair loss, it's important to note that there are no treatments that guarantee chemotherapy without hair loss.
With that said, several treatments possibly prevent hair loss during chemotherapy. Let's take a look at a few.
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Scalp cooling (also known as scalp hypothermia) is a treatment that involves using ice packs or special cold caps on the scalp while undergoing chemotherapy. Newer technology in cooling caps uses insulated fabrics that use tubes that circulate cold fluids.
For this treatment, users wear the cap 30 minutes before chemo infusion, during infusion, and for a certain amount of time afterward (depending on the treatment and individual).
The theory behind this treatment is that the cold temperature used on the scalp causes the blood vessels to constrict. This reduces the number of chemotherapy chemicals that reach the hair follicle cells.
Studies have found that scalp cooling can be effective at reducing hair loss caused by chemotherapy, but results vary. For example, it appears that scalp cooling works well when anthracycline-based drugs like Adriamycin are used in combination with taxane-based drugs like Taxol. But when they are used separately, scalp cooling doesn't work as well.
It has also been found that scalp cooling works better for people with breast cancer and other solid tumour cancers while not working as well with people that have blood cancers such as leukemia.
According to one study by the Journal of the American Medical Association, scalp cooling reduces the risk of hair loss by roughly 50%.
However, there are some side effects of scalp cooling. People have reported getting headaches, numbness, and shooting pains when wearing the cap for long periods.
Scalp compression is similar to scalp cooling but without using cold temperatures. Instead, the caps are used with neoprene that tightly compresses the skin on the scalp.
The idea is that the increased pressure lowers blood flow to the scalp, decreasing the number of chemotherapy drugs that reach hair follicles.
This is a good alternative for people who might not be able to afford or handle the side effects of scalp cooling.
However, there isn't clear evidence that scalp compression works. Some also report getting tension headaches due to tight compression.
Although there are no medications that can 100% guarantee to prevent hair loss during chemo, there are options for helping speed up hair growth during and after treatment.
Prescription medications are available in different forms, like topical (applied directly to the scalp) and oral forms (taken by the mouth). Ask your physician for more detailed information.
Although hair loss and chemotherapy can feel like it is out of your control, there are steps you can take to manage them. Try these tips to minimize hair loss as well as the frustration and anxiety that comes with it.
Be gentle with your hair. Before you start treatment, try to avoid using any harsh chemicals or styles on your hair. This includes bleaching, colouring, or perming. Avoid using heating devices like hot rollers or curling irons, and air dry it as much as possible.
Consider cutting your hair. Short hair tends to look thicker and fuller than long hair. Once you start losing your hair, it won't be as noticeable with short hair. It can also help you transition easier to having less/no hair than long hair will.
Plan to cover your head. It's best to start planning for things you might want to use to cover your head once you start losing your hair, like wigs, scarves, or other head coverings. Wigs can be prescribed by your doctor and might be covered by your insurance.
Consider shaving your head. You might start getting itchy and sensitive during treatment. Shaving your head can reduce irritation and "skip the step" of shedding.
Protect your scalp. Make sure to protect your scalp with sunscreen or a head covering if it is exposed.
Continue to be gentle with your hair. As your new hair begins to grow back, it will be especially fragile, so continue to avoid using heating devices or heavy styling creams. Don't use any colouring or bleaching until your hair is stronger.
Be patient. It will take some time for your hair to grow back, and it most likely won't feel or look like what you're used to right away.
That's everything you need to know about chemotherapy hair loss. Although it might be a long, tough battle, know that you have the strength to get through it, just like many have before you. Also, you most likely won't experience permanent hair loss from chemotherapy.