There are different forms of treatment for cancer the main ones being chemotherapy and radiotherapy both of which are invasive and have side effects. One of those effects can be loss of hair, from slight thinning that goes unnoticed to complete baldness. The good news is that the hair normally grows back after treatment has stopped.
Chemotherapy deals with cancer by using drugs which attack the cancer cells stopping them from growing. The side effect is they can also affect normal cells including the hair follicles. This form of hair loss is a form of alopecia and once the normal cells have regained their health hair will begin to grow again. How much hair is lost will depend on the dosage and on the individual. Sometimes hair loss is minimal and goes unnoticed or it can go in patches but rarely leads to full baldness. Depending on the type of chemotherapy, hair loss may also be seen on other parts of the body such as eyebrows, eyelashes, body hair and nasal hair.
Hair loss normally starts to fall out within 2 to 3 weeks, very rarely within days. Hair may start to appear on the pillow after a night’s sleep, after washing or brushing. It can become dry, thin and brittle, this is normal with this kind of therapy and is ‘normal’. Change of hair style for those with thinning or patchy hair will help to cover up and give a new look. For further amounts of hair loss wigs are a solution. They have greatly improved in recent years, are light and flexible and can be worn whether sleeping, bathing or normal daily wear. If the scalp becomes tender discuss with a consultant as there are creams that can be rubbed in gently to help ease the inflammation.
There have been developments with two pieces of equipment that cool the scalp before the administration of chemotherapy and have been seen to slow down hair loss. One is the cold cap whereby a cap is filled with chilled gel which keeps the head chilled for 20 to 40 minutes at a time. The downside is it is heavy and because of the coldness can cause headaches. The other is a cap which uses a refrigerated cooling system that pumps liquid coolant through it. As this uses a machine walking about with the cap on is not possible but can be switched of at any time. Both methods need to be used for several hours but some say it is worth it to avoid more hair loss. It is not appropriate for all types of cancer but a consultant will advise what is best.
Radiotherapy uses high energy rays to destroy cancer cells and leaves normal cells intact or with little damage. Hair loss will only be seen in the areas that are being treated. Which form of treatment is used will depend on the type of cancer and may need several treatments before it is stopped. Hair loss after radiotherapy does not always grow back as the hair follicles are too damaged. It could grow back in patches but there is no way to tell until it happens. Again the use of a wig is excellent as they do look realistic and give the confidence that is needed at this time. Thinning hair can be disguised with a good haircut. Once treatment has stopped and there is no possibility of hair growth, hair transplants can be discussed with a professional to see if it would be suitable.
Hair regrowth for either form of treatment may be different from the hair before. It could come back a slightly different colour, thickness, curly or straight. Knowing how the hair will grow back is not known until it does. Unfortunately cancer affects many people’s lives and how it is treated depends on the severity and where it is. Treatment has come a long way in recent years and recovery is better than it has ever been. For those people, hair can sometimes be the least of their problems but to have hair grow back or being able to cover with a wig of good hairstyle boosts confidence and general well-being.
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