How Chemotherapy Affects The Hair

October 18, 2017

This topic is a doozy, so let us just start there. There are few things more difficult to talk about than cancer. I promised to keep it real on this blog, so we're gonna jump into it. **DISCLAIMER** Nothing in this post should be construed as medical advice. Only your medical professional can give you advice. This is simply observations I have noticed over the years, and information I've learned through speaking with medical professionals myself, as well as a few cancer patients.

For someone facing a diagnosis of cancer, and even for those facing it with them, the prospect of hair loss (alopecia) due to chemotherapy treatments is a daunting one. Not only are you fighting for your life (and sometimes just trying to find the energy to put pants on), but the thought of such a drastic change to your appearance can be one of the more frightening aspects of treatment. You may feel angry, sad, betrayed, frightened, or a host of other emotions about your cancer diagnosis itself, but one thing I've found in common is that most people feel "silly" for worrying about their appearance in the face of all the other things on their plate now. But let me tell you... it's ok to be upset about hair loss. Think about it... it's a very outward physical symptom that someone is not well, whether you want others to know that or not. Most people are very private when it comes to health concerns, so.... such an outward expression of your health can feel like a violation.

But with a little demystification....it could seem a little less scary. So, here goes.

Chemotherapy is toxic, and not just to cancer cells. It's toxic to your whole body, including cells unaffected by cancer. Your hair follicles are especially sensitive to chemotherapy, and many people experience some change in their hair, depending on which medication and dose is used. Every client responds differently, so you may experience some or all of this: changes in density, color, texture, and curl pattern; adverse reactions to chemicals like haircolor; and increased sensitivity to the scalp (especially to UV light). Your hair may thin or fall out (and usually if this happens, it will be in clumps, over a short period of time). It could happen as soon as the second or third week of treatment. And it could happen to ALL the hair on your body...not just the hair on your head. Eyelashes, eyebrows.... even pubic hair can be affected. Talk to your medical team about what to expect with your particular medication and dosage.

Fortunately, this hair loss is usually temporary. Once chemotherapy has finished, the body will typically begin growing hair again three to six months after you've finished. This is where things can get interesting... your hair may come back different than what you have been used to dealing with. Your color, density, texture, and curl pattern can all be different.

So... can anything be done about preventing the hair loss? Unfortunately, the science is still out on that one. Many people think that wearing tight elastic bands on the head, or cool/ice caps, will inhibit blood flow to the scalp, which in theory would limit the exposure to the chemo. Many medical professionals have concerns about that... they don't like the idea of that blood flow being inhibited because that means the treatment itself is being inhibited. It's a murky area, and definitely one best to discuss with your medical team.

As for your appearance during treatment, there are a few options. Many people opt to cut their hair short (or even shave their heads in advance!) because it is less noticeable if clumps of hair are lost. Many people find it empowering to shave their heads in advance...to take some of their power back and thumb their nose at cancer. There are really good options in wigs, in wide ranges of prices and quality of construction. Warning...wearing a wig can get warm. Think of it like wearing a wool cap... even high end, lace-front wigs trap body heat. Some insurance companies will even pay for a wig, if a doctor prescribes it as a "cranial prosthesis", and many hairdressers specialize in wig work for those going through chemotherapy. Your doctor probably has a list of these specialists to refer you to. Many people prefer to wear scarves or hats for simplicity sake... and there are some really clever tutorials on YouTube that show fancy ways to tie scarves that allow you to have a little flair. Some people prefer to avoid all those options and go "au natural". Depending on your head shape (and if you have any scars), you may find that you ROCK the bald look. During treatment, it's best to consider avoiding all harsh chemicals (color, perms, relaxers, etc), as well as hot tools or anything else that could stress the hair or scalp. Don't forget your sunblock, and be as gentle as you can be to avoid excessive hair loss.

The important thing here is not let your hair loss define you, or distract you from your goal....to kick cancers ass. In the end, that's all that matters.

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