FAQ: Chemotherapy and hair loss
You might not be aware of the importance of your hair to your self image and state of mind until you face the prospect of losing it and, in fact, both men and women note that hair loss is one of the side effects that they worry about most when they are diagnosed with cancer.
Here we have answered some of the most common questions we get asked about chemotherapy and hair loss, as we have found that talking through any concerns and fears is the best way to prepare patients for their breast cancer care journey.
Does chemo automatically cause hair loss?
It depends on the kind of treatment you get because hair loss occurs with some – but not all – chemotherapy drugs.
Why do certain treatments cause hair loss?
Because certain chemo procedures use cytostatic drugs – which are designed to quickly detect and destroy any rapidly-dividing cells, such as cancer cells. Unfortunately, they can also wipe out other rapidly-dividing cells, such as the cells in hair follicles that make hair grow. However, because chemo is a bespoke treatment involving a cocktail of specific drugs depending on the circumstances of the cancer you have, it’s not a given that your treatment will result in hair loss.
If hair loss occurs, when will it start to happen?
Usually two to three weeks after the first course of treatment. With some people, hair loss will happen gradually, while with others it’ll be more sudden – again, it depends on the treatment. The amount of hair loss varies from a slight thinning to complete baldness, and affects the scalp, eyelashes, eyebrows, legs, armpits and pubic area. By the second course of treatment, the hair loss will be more pronounced.
Is there any pain during hair loss?
Some people will experience a pain in the scalp area, while others could experience itching.
Will my hair ever grow back?
Yes. Hair will grow back when the course of treatment has ended. Some people will notice immediate growth, while others will experience it a month or two afterwards.
Will my regrown hair look or feel different?
Hair that grows back after chemo often looks different at first: there may be a different tint to it – usually darker. Sometimes the texture changes as well, with straight hair going curlier, and vice versa. Sometimes this is a temporary effect which lasts for a few months. Sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it comes back thicker: sometimes it feels finer.
What should I do to prepare for chemotherapy and hair loss?
This is a very personal thing, and it depends on two main factors – the treatment you are about to receive, and your personality. If you have been advised that your treatment will result in hair loss, you could get the jump on it and cut your hair shorter beforehand: a gradual experience of losing hair can help people cope better than a sudden loss.
If you really can’t handle changing your looks and intend to wear a hairpiece as you recover from chemo, make sure you shop around for one that suits your current look well in advance – or maybe it’s an opportunity to try out another look altogether.
And, of course, more and more women are choosing not to hide their hair loss at all. If you’re one of those people, remember that your exposed scalp will feel very sensitive – and not always in a negative way – at first. A huge amount of body heat is lost through the top of the head, so stock up on headscarves and hats. And an exposed scalp can be extremely sensitive to UV rays, so keep the sun cream handy.
If you have any other questions, one of the cancer care team at Thames Breast Clinic is always on hand to discuss every aspect of your treatment.