Of all the side effects of cancer treatment, the one that people often fear most is losing their hair. This post sorts out fact from fiction about hair loss during chemotherapy and other cancer treatments...
Our hair is so much a part of our identity; it can frame and shape our faces and heads, it tells a story about who we are. Not only that, we spend a small fortune taking care of our hair – in the UK, the average woman will spend between £500 and £1,000 a year on hair products and visits to the hairdresser. But it isn’t a question of vanity; the fear of losing something so unique and special to us through chemotherapy or radiotherapy runs deep and can affect women, men and children and young people equally.
For some of us, hair loss trumpets the fact that we have cancer and, while some of us are fine about sharing that with the world, not everyone feels the same way. It can be distressing to stand in front of a mirror and see someone we no longer recognise.
We’re taking a look at what causes hair loss and why, and what can help if you are facing the prospect of hair loss or are currently trying to cope with it. But having cancer treatment doesn’t necessarily mean losing your hair, so we’re tackling the myths surrounding it too.
Why does hair fall out during cancer treatment?
Chemotherapy drugs are pretty powerful cancer treatment tools; they have to be, they’re designed to kill cancer cells. Unfortunately they can also affect healthy, rapidly growing cells, including your hair follicles (hair roots).
So, if chemotherapy forms part of your treatment plan, hair loss could affect you. What’s more, chemotherapy can trigger hair loss elsewhere in your body including your eyelashes and eyebrows, your legs and underarms, and your pubic hair, not just your scalp.
However, not all chemotherapy drugs have this affect; some cause more hair loss than others and some don’t cause hair loss at all. We produced this at-a-glance guide to chemotherapy drugs and hair loss, which will give you an idea of what to expect from your particular chemotherapy regime. Do discuss any worries or questions you have with your cancer nurse or oncologist, who can go through things with you in more detail.
While it’s true that most of us tend to associate hair loss with chemotherapy, it can also be caused by radiotherapy and you can lose hair in the area – or opposite the area - where your cancer is being treated. As with chemotherapy, do talk to your cancer nurse or oncologist about whether or not this is likely to affect you.
How soon will my hair start thinning during cancer treatment?
If your treatment is likely to cause hair loss, you can expect to see the first signs from two to four weeks after treatment starts, although it can differ from person to person. You may find that the loss is very gradual or that your hair starts to fall out in clumps, which you notice on your pillow or in your hairbrush, and you could also have a tender scalp.
‘I was surprised though at how painful it was when my hair fell out. I was not expecting that at all. I thought it would be like brushing your hair and strands fall out, painlessly.’ Live Better With Facebook member
You might lose some of your hair; you may lose it all, and hair loss can continue for up to a few weeks after your treatment ends.
How long does hair take to grow back after cancer treatment?
It’s different for each person but it is likely to be several weeks before you can expect to see signs of recovery and new hair growth. But, as many people discover, your new hair may be different in colour and texture. If you had straight hair, you could be looking at unexpected waves and curls, and your fair or dark hair may be replaced by grey, silver or white hair – that’s because it takes a while for the cells that control hair colour to start working again.
Can anything stop may hair falling out?
There is nothing, as yet, that is guaranteed to stop hair loss from certain types of cancer treatment. Scalp cooling caps that are worn during chemotherapy sessions can, however, help to lessen hair loss and many people find them effective. Nevertheless they can be uncomfortable, very cold, and cause headaches, and are not entirely without risk – that’s because they reduce the amount of chemotherapy reaching the area they cover.
If you want to try a cooling cap, we recommend that you talk to your cancer nurse first and make sure that you have all the information you need so that you can decide if it is going to be right for you. See the Live Better With guide to scalp cooling here.
Our 3-stage plan for managing cancer treatment hair loss
The prospect of losing your hair can be distressing and overwhelming. So, we’ve put together a three-stage hair loss management plan to help you prepare for and cope with hair loss - and come out the other side!
Before you start your treatment
- Take things gently. Avoid using bleach, dyes, tints and perms on your hair; let it dry naturally and leave electrically heated hair tongs, straighteners and rollers in the cupboard!
- Go for the chop! The shorter your hair to begin with, the easier it is to deal with losing it. If you have long hair, be brave and aim to have it cut as short as possible.
‘I chose to go shorter in stages to help me and my loved ones adjust to the change. This may not be the way for all of us but made it easier for me.’ Community Forum member
- To cover or not to cover? Whether or not to cover your head when you’re living with hair loss is a personal decision. If you’re likely to feel happier with a head covering, there is now plenty of choice, from wigs to beanies, from bandanas to bamboo caps, scarves and hats. You’ll find a wide range of recommended head and hair covering products in the Live Better With online shop.
Live Better With 3 Roses Bamboo Hat
During your treatment
- Stay gentle. As above! Keep your hair and scalp clean with natural, chemical-free shampoos and conditioners and avoid any harsh towel rubbing. Live Better With has some excellent natural hair care products to choose from.
- Cover up. Wear a soft, sleep hat and use a natural fibre pillowcase – bamboo, for example – at night and use some sort of head covering or apply a sunscreen when you are out and about during the day to protect your scalp from very warm – or very cold – temperatures.
‘I had the bamboo hats to wear in bed until the last of my hair had fallen out. They are very soft and not too hot.’ Live Better With Facebook member
- Shaving for comfort. Treatment can make your scalp sensitive and itchy, so some people opt to shave their scalps. Shaving can help lessen irritation and you don’t have to deal with the distress of finding clumps of hair everywhere. Please note, chemotherapy puts you more at risk of bleeding and infection so be extra careful not to cut yourself. If you do cut yourself while shaving, make sure to apply pressure, clean and cover it well.
At Live Better With, you’ll find a wide selection of products that may help slow down hair loss.
When your treatment ends
- Gently still does it. New hair growth can be very fragile so stick with your all-natural, no harsh treatment routine. Avoid hard rubbing or massaging as that can damage new growth.
- Think about a supplement. Vitamin B7 supplements like this one may help to boost your keratin levels, for healthy hair and nails. Do check with your GP before taking any supplement, to make sure it won’t affect any medication you're taking, or any existing conditions you may have.
- Hairdressers can help! Look for a local hairdresser like Heads on High in Devizes, which offers a special service for people suffering from hair loss caused by cancer treatment. The charity, My New Hair, has a salon finder to help you locate a specially trained hairdresser near you, who can help with wigs, hairstyles and hair care.
Will my eyebrows and eyelashes fall out during cancer treatment?
They may do or they may just get thinner . . . although that’s not the case for everyone who suffers hair loss. But, like our hair, our eyebrows, in particular, frame our faces.
Thank goodness, therefore, for eyebrow stencils and gels; they’re easy to use and a real confidence booster. Other options include micropigmentation, a type of tattoo that creates a long-lasting eyebrow shape.
Losing your eyelashes can lead to sore eyes – your cancer nurse can give you drops to help with this. But, if your eyes are comfortable, try using an eyeliner pencil, like this one or false eyelashes. Check with a good local beauty salon or visit your favourite make-up counter for advice.
In most cases, your eyebrows and eyelashes will grow back after cancer treatment ends but they grow more slowly than head hair so don’t be surprised if it takes a while for them to catch up.
Dispelling myths about cancer treatment hair loss
Only chemotherapy causes hair loss. As we’ve explained, radiotherapy can cause hair loss too. That’s why it’s important to talk to your cancer nurse before any treatment starts, so that you can make a plan!
Cancer treatment makes you go bald. It may do but not necessarily. Hair loss varies from person to person – from slight hair loss to total hair loss . . . or no hair loss at all.
Losing my hair will make me look ugly. No it won’t, although it will make you look different. But these days there are plenty of options to help you manage your changing appearance, like these amazing henna crowns.
The Live Better With online shop has over 150 recommended products to help with hair loss at every stage of your cancer treatment – and beyond.