A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Handling hair loss during cancer treatment

Illustration - cancer ribbon with comb and hair scissorsHair loss may be one of the most difficult cancer treatment side effects to deal with.

Some patients lose all or most of their hair during cancer treatment, while other patients don’t lose any hair. Hair loss depends on the type of treatment you receive and individual circumstances, said Dr. Diane Meyer, a Marshfield Clinic dermatologist.

If you experience hair loss, you can do things to make the process less stressful and help hair grow back faster, she said.

What causes hair loss?

Four causes of hair loss are common during cancer treatment.

  • Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy not only attacks cancer cells, but also other rapidly growing cells like hair follicles, causing hair loss.
  • Radiation. Radiation attacks rapidly growing cells like hair follicles, but only in the area of the body where the treatment is directed.
  • Weight loss. Rapid weight loss causes hair follicles to enter a shedding phase. Patients experience thinning hair rather than total hair loss.
  • Surgery. Surgery sometimes causes hair to thin in the same way that weight loss does.

Hair loss may affect the scalp, eyebrows, eyelashes and body hair.

Chemotherapy and radiation cause hair loss within a few weeks of starting treatment. Hair will start thinning two or three months after rapid weight loss or surgery, Meyer said.

Dealing with hair loss

“If your oncologist tells you you’re likely to have hair loss, it’s a good idea to plan ahead,” Meyer said.

There is no proven effective method of preventing hair loss, but you can take steps to feel more comfortable.

Tips for dealing with hair loss:

  • Get a wig before hair loss starts, if you want one. Matching your hair color and style is easier before hair loss begins. Some insurance companies will cover the cost of a wig.
  • Buy fun hats and scarves.
  • Wear sunscreen on your head if you don’t use a wig or head covering.
  • Get a haircut. Losing large sections of long hair is traumatic. Cutting hair short before hair loss starts may help.
  • Use shampoo made for sensitive scalps. Perfumes and preservatives can bother sensitive skin.
  • Don’t color or perm hair. The chemicals may speed up hair loss or damage new hair growing in.

Help hair grow back

Hair loss during cancer and cancer treatment usually is temporary, Meyer said.

Expect hair to start growing a few weeks after chemotherapy or radiation, and within six months of weight loss or surgery. Hair usually returns to normal growth within a year.

Remember these tips as your hair starts to grow:

  • Try hair growth products. Meyer suggested applying a 5 percent topical minoxidil, such as Rogaine, to the scalp during and after hair loss to help hair grow back faster. Prescription Latisse can help fill in eyelashes and eyebrows. Talk to your doctor before using these products to make sure they’re safe for you.
  • Don’t be alarmed if hair grows back a different texture or slightly different color.
  • Avoid hair dryers, curling irons and flat irons if possible. The heat will damage new hair.
  • Eat a balanced diet to give your body the nutrients to re-grow hair.

A hair stylist can give you tips on how to look and feel your best. Visit Look Good Feel Better for more beauty tips and advice on handling hair loss.

  1. Nov 12, 2015
    • Nov 13, 2015
  2. Nov 12, 2015

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