Being a cancer patient is temporary, so is the hair loss that often comes with treatment. Approach it with a strategy: control it so it doesn’t control you.
A cancer diagnosis is generally hardest on patients in the first week or two when it’s new. This is a time when a lot of questions need to be answered and not all the answers are available.
Fortunately, one of the most important questions – will this alter my appearance? –can be managed. That question is usually about hair loss and hair loss solutions. It varies by individual and by the nature of the cancer and the treatment for it. Cancer-related hair loss occurs in both men and women, as well as children. There are varying hair loss treatments for each, if and when hair loss occurs.
For anyone concerned about the effects of chemotherapy and other medications on hair, we recommend you take the following steps:
- Explore your options – Not all cancer treatments cause hair loss, and not everyone experiences hair loss in the same way. Speak first with your doctor about what the likelihood of losing hair to chemotherapy, radiation and other treatments would be. With that knowledge (or “best guesses”), think through whether you’d rather wear some type of wig or hair replacement system, if you’d instead go with a shaved head, or a hat or scarf. Everyone is different and due their own personal style.
- Establish your position – Part of taking care of your health is letting those around you, friends and family, know you have a plan. Talk to them about your course of treatment – judiciously, if you think they are capable of hearing about it – including the possibility of hair loss that can come from treatment. Engage them in the options if you’re unsure yourself. And if you clearly know what you’ll do if your hair is affected, claim it as what you know you have to do as part of managing a difficult situation.
- Slow the loss – Even if your treatment will cause hair loss, you might be able to reduce the degree of loss if you treat it gently. That means using milder shampoos (avoid those that have fragrances, salicylic acid, and alcohol) and eschew hot-air dryers and hard-bristle hairbrushes. If you color, straighten, or curl your hair with chemicals, this is a time to discontinue that; all are harsh on weakened hair shafts. Sleeping on a satin pillowcase can reduce overnight hair loss.
- Cold caps and cooling systems – In a world of medical quackery, this is a technique that actually works. Worn during chemotherapy infusions, these helmet-like devices narrow blood vessels on the scalp, which inhibits the amount of chemotherapy reaching the hair follicles (the “roots” of hair that otherwise shrink back from the medicines).
- Respond to hair loss incrementally – Of course, even with planning it’s difficult to predict exactly what works for you. If your hair starts to fall out in patches, a hat or scarf might work for a bit. But a shorter cut or shaving might be better – again, depending on what works best for you.
- Prep and pamper your skin – If your hair takes a holiday from your head, your skin should rise to the occasion. The thing is your hair loss might bring on some itchiness or other sensations. Treat it with appropriate, gentle topical lotions and consult with a dermatologist if over the counter products are ineffective.
- Welcome back the new hair – It’s a rare case when hair doesn’t grow back after chemotherapy. Be gentle and patient, as the texture and even color of your hair might be different, at least in the initial phases; some people with naturally straight hair might get a surprising wave or curliness. But for those whose hair (and eyebrows and eyelashes) do not return as robustly as it was previously, there are a number of options for thickening or replacing hair.
There’s a lot to think about and manage when undergoing treatment for cancer. At least where it comes to hair loss, you have many tools at your disposal.