Hair loss is the most commonly known side effect of chemotherapy, and frequently tops the list of things people fear most from cancer treatment. In fact, a recent study in the US found that not only did 47% of female cancer patients find hair loss to be the most traumatic aspect of chemotherapy, but – shockingly – 8% of those would actually refuse further treatment for fear of hair loss.
Why does hair loss have such an impact on self esteem?
It seems the main fear patients have from hair loss is that it is generally associated with cancer, so that people will look at them and immediately know that they are ill. For many women, also, their hair is a symbol of their femininity and to lose their hair is to feel less of a woman.
Why does chemotherapy cause hair loss?
Chemotherapy attacks cells in the body that divide rapidly, because that is how cancer cells behave. Unfortunately the cells that produce hair also divide rapidly, so they are often the first to be killed off by chemotherapy treatment – hair loss usually begins within days of the initiation of treatment, with hair starting to grow back around one to three months after the therapy is completed.
How can hair loss due to chemotherapy be avoided?
Many methods have been tried to prevent hair loss during cancer treatment, but unfortunately none has been entirely successful.
One idea that is currently under trial and is proving effective in reducing the amount of hair lost is scalp cooling – where a cap is worn to keep the scalp at a low temperature. Whilst this method has had some success, it is unable to stop the hair loss completely, at best managing to retain about 50% of the hair on a patient’s head.
Other options include decreased drug delivery, which has the obvious disadvantage of risking a less effective treatment of the cancer itself, and pharmacological interventions – topical drugs applied to the scalp – which have been found to cause scalp irritation as well as unwanted hair growth on other parts of the body.
There are, however, a few simple steps you can take at home to minimise hair loss from chemotherapy: use gentle hair care techniques during chemotherapy, and avoid bleaching, dyeing, blowdrying, curling or straightening your hair; use a satin pillow case, which is softer on the skin and is less likely to attract fragile hairs which can be easily pulled from the scalp; cut your hair short so that hair loss is less noticeable, and if total hair loss does occur, the transition is smoother.