The Oncology Patient and Hair Loss

How To Deal With Hair Loss

Although alopecia, (hair loss) is not life threatening, many patients describe it as the most traumatic side effect of chemotherapy, as well as a constant reminder of the cancer and its treatment. Patients experiencing hair loss encounter shedding of hair, obstacles to routine hair grooming, and difficulty in maintaining body heat, particularly at night, as well as scalp sensitivity and tenderness. Hair loss can also evoke feelings of low self-esteem and fear of how an altered appearance will be perceived by others.

Cancer therapy is different for every patient. Since each person will respond differently to his/her drug regimen, it is important to know that hair loss is likely, but that it may or may not occur. Before your regimen begins, consult your physician about the likelihood and location of hair loss.

Common Questions About Hair and Hair Loss

What is the purpose of hair?
Hair protects the surface of the skin and conserves body heat. It also plays a major role in self-image.

What is alopecia?
Alopecia is the medical term to describe hair loss.

Why does hair fall out?
Cancer cells grow rapidly and uncontrollably. Chemotherapy affects any cell that grows rapidly, such as hair cells.

How does my hair fall out?
Hair falls out at the root when the hair bulb shrinks. Hair falls out spontaneously, during combing, or breaks at the bulb.

How much hair will I lose?
Chemotherapy affects all body hair. Since scalp hair is an active growth phase more often than any other body hair, this is the hair that chemotherapy most often affects. Hair loss can range from thinning to complete baldness and the degree of hair loss is drug and dose dependent. This condition is always temporary.

How does radiation therapy affect the hair?
Radiation therapy affects hair only in the area where the radiation has been administered. With radiation therapy, hair loss may or may not be permanent and is dose and site dependent.

Can I prevent hair loss?
No hair growth stimulant, shampoo, conditioner, or other cosmetic treatment will prevent or retard hair loss. Note: You may have heard about the use of scalp hypothermia or scalp tourniquets that were used in the past to protect against hair loss by decreasing the scalp temperature and circulation near the bulb. These techniques are no longer recommended because reducing the circulation in this area also reduces the delivery of chemotherapy and its therapeutic effects.

When will my hair fall out?
Hair loss usually occurs two to three weeks after chemotherapy or radiation treatment begins. Hair loss may be sudden or gradual.

What are my headcover choices?
A wig and several turban styles may be necessary during and possibly after the cancer therapy. When considering a wig, choose a style that is natural looking, easy to care for, comfortable to wear and reasonably-priced.

What should I do if I lose my eyebrows or eyelashes?
Eyeliner can be worn instead of false eyelashes, dark-rimmed eyeglasses with or without prescription lenses will help to frame the face, or a visit to a make-over specialist is helpful for learning eyebrow and eyelash application.

When will my hair grow back?
Hair often begins to grow back during chemotherapy treatment. For radiation therapy, hair regrowth will not begin until several months after radiation treatment is completed. Hair grows by forming new cells at the base of the root. Scalp hair usually grows about a half inch each month, and new growth may be slightly different in texture and color.

Can I color or perm my hair when it grows back?
Permanent hair color is the most damaging to the hair shaft, therefore, the use of semi-permanent color is best. Change your hair no more than three shades from the regrowth color. Do not bleach your hair to lighten it. When chemically curling your hair, wrap hair loosely on the largest rods, use a mild body wave, and leave it on for a short time to minimize hair breakage.

What You Can Do
If you're facing potential hair loss, follow these tips:

  • Visit a professional wig consultant before your hair loss occurs in order to match your hair color and style.
  • Be conscious of hair and scalp care during hair loss.
  • Keep your scalp and hair clean by shampooing regularly with a mild shampoo and conditioner.
  • Rinse your hair thoroughly, pat dry with a towel and comb through using a wide-toothed comb to avoid pulling.
  • Prevent damage to your hair by avoiding hair dryers, curling irons, electric curlers or bristly rollers.
  • Avoid perms and hair coloring to prevent hair damage and scalp irritation.


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Wigs and Other Head Coverings

Genesis Cancer Care Institute in partnership with the American Cancer Society accepts donations of wigs and other head coverings that are new or gently used. Wigs are on display in the Cancer Care Institute Resource Room and are available for women at no cost. All donated head coverings/scarves are also available. We are very grateful for the many generous donations that we receive. Capri College 563-388-6642 in Davenport is the other American Cancer Society's designated site for wig donations. This wonderful center offers the free services of a Look Good, Feel Better volunteer cosmetologist who is available by appointment to work with you in wig selection and styling.

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