Does Cancer Cause Hair Loss?
Cancer – it’s one of the scariest diagnoses anyone can receive. The single word can trigger thousands of questions. Will I survive? Can it be treated? Will I lose my hair? Compared to other side effects, hair loss may be minor. But for many patients, the emotional impact can be devastating.
What causes hair loss in cancer patients?
Hair loss in cancer patients is typically caused by the cancer treatment, not the disease itself. Chemotherapy, radiation, and other treatments commonly result in differing degrees of hair loss. As the drugs destroy the cancer cells, they also harm the hair follicles, leading to hair loss.
Chemotherapy medications cause an anagen effluvium, which is an abnormal loss of hair during the first phase of the hair growth cycle. This means that the anagen hairs, or the actively growing hairs, suddenly stop growing in the same way a drug makes a tumor stop growing. Treatment that is good for killing cancer cells is bad for your hair. And because 80-90% of your hair is in the anagen phase, or active growing phase, hair loss from chemotherapy causes near baldness.
Certain treatments may cause only the hair on the scalp to fall out. Others may result in hair loss over the entire body. Still, others might not lose their hair at all.
How to prevent hair loss when receiving chemotherapy
While healthcare providers urge patients to focus on the most important issue – getting better – there are some things that could help to minimize hair loss during treatment.
Hair often falls out in greater volume during brushing or shampooing. Gently washing your hair less frequently than usual and combing with a wide-tooth comb may prevent added damage to the hair follicles and keep some hair from falling out.
While patients may want to style their hair to feel better about their appearance during treatment, doing so could cause more hair loss. Using heat styling tools like curling irons, flat irons, and blow dryers and securing hair into ponytails, braids, or buns with elastic hair ties or clips can all add to the stress on already-fragile strands.
Some people have used cryotherapy to try to minimize the effect of anti-cancer drugs on hair. Cryotherapy, or using extreme cold for medical purposes, involves applying ice packs or other cold cap device to the scalp to slow blood flow to the area. There is only one device currently approved by the FDA for this use and clinical trials are still underway to determine effectiveness and safety. You can learn more about the caps here. Make sure to discuss this treatment with your doctor before trying it.
Prescription hair loss treatments are largely ineffective at preventing cancer-related hair loss. When you end cancer treatment, you can explore hair growth treatments to help your hair grow back quickly.
How to hide hair loss
Losing hair to cancer treatments can be disturbing, but there are plenty of options for camouflaging thinning or balding hair. Wigs are commonly used to hide hair loss from cancer. Very realistic wigs, made with real or synthetic hair, can be created to match a person’s existing hair color and style. If worn early in the treatment stages, they can completely mask hair loss during chemotherapy or radiation. Because hair loss is a side effect of cancer treatment, wigs are often covered by insurance when prescribed by a doctor.
Not everyone is comfortable wearing a wig. Some people prefer to wrap their heads with scarves or wear hats, which can be more breathable, softer on sensitive skin, as well as easier to clean and care for.
Many people recommend cutting the hair short or shaving it off completely at the onset of treatment. Even for those who plan to hide their hair loss with wigs or scarves, seeing large sections of hair fall out can be unnerving. Beginning treatments with less hair can make future hair loss seem less drastic.
When will your hair grow back?
The good news is that the hair will almost always grow back once the cancer treatments stop. However, it’s important to note that radiation therapy can sometimes cause permanent hair loss when administered in high doses.
As with other types of hair loss, the rate and timing of regrowth vary by individual. Some people start to see regrowth while still in treatment; for others, it may take several months after treatments have stopped. When hair grows back, it may have a slightly different color, texture, or thickness than it did before undergoing treatment.
If you haven’t seen your hair regrow within a few months after your treatment has ended, contact the Limmer Hair Transplant Center today! We can help identify whether you are experiencing temporary or permanent hair loss, or other changes. Although hair transplants may be an option for some patients, this in not typically the first step after chemotherapy. Once we diagnose your condition, we will create a non-surgical hair regrowth plan to put you on a path to a full head of hair again!