Hair loss and cancer - Maggie's Centres

Hair loss and cancer


Many (but not all) cancer treatments cause hair loss or hair thinning. Hair will usually grow back after treatment however, hair loss can be a very emotional time and for many people a time when they feel most vulnerable.

The information on this page will help you to find out more about hair loss after cancer treatment, ways to help you cope with it practically and emotionally and provide tips on caring for your hair as it regrows.

Hair loss (alopecia)

Hair loss (also called alopecia) occurs as a result of many cancer treatments, including some types of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and biological therapies. Not all treatments for cancer will cause hair loss and most hair loss is not permanent.

Chemotherapy related hair loss will usually begin 10-14 days following the first treatment. For some people hair may just thin, but other people may experience complete hair loss. Some types/doses of chemotherapy in particular, may also lose other hair, for example eyebrows and eyelashes, and body hair, including pubic hair.

Radiotherapy causes hair loss only on the part of your body where the radiotherapy beams enter and leave your body (the treatment area) Your hair is likely to grow back after radiotherapy, although it depends on how much radiotherapy you have.

It is not always possible to know in advance whether you will definitely lose your hair or whether it will just thin however, you can ask your healthcare team if your treatment is likely to cause hair loss so that you can prepare for it.

In most cases your hair will grow back, sometimes even starting to grow before your treatment has ended. Often the texture and colour of your new hair will be slightly different than before.

Preventing hair loss 

Some cancer treatment centres offer a procedure called scalp cooling to try and prevent chemotherapy related hair loss. Scalp cooling is more likely to work with some chemotherapy drugs and doses than others and not all hospitals are able to offer it. If you are interested in scalp cooling, ask your healthcare team about whether it is available, what it involves and whether it would be suitable for you.

Cutting your hair shorter can help to lessen the weight of the hair and slow it falling out (it can also make it less noticeable if/when it does)

Depending on your treatment you may not be able to prevent hair loss. If your treatment is likely to only thin your hair the following may help to minimise hair loss:

  • Use mild shampoos, soft hairbrushes and low heat settings when using a hairdryer
  • Sleep on a satin pillowcase to minimise hair tangling
  • Avoid using hair colour or hair dyes or having a perm.
  • If you decide to dye your hair seek professional advice ensuring they know you are having treatment and make sure you do a test even if you have used the dye before as your hair and scalp may react very differently to usual.
  • Avoid rollers, tongs, hair straighteners or using hair-dryers on the hot setting
  • Avoid using unproven remedies that promise fast hair growth or prevention of hair loss (always check with your hospital team before using these)

Other hair

You may also lose other hair for example eyebrows and eyelashes, and body hair (including pubic hair)

Managing Hair loss

However much you are prepared for it is likely that you will find the process of hair loss distressing, especially if clumps of hair are coming away whenever you brush or wash your hair. You may choose to have your hair cut short or shaved so that you have some control over the process.  If you have long hair you may want to consider donating your hair to an organisation for use in wigs or hair extensions.

Covering your head

Hair protects our scalp avoid exposing your head to strong sunlight as it is likely to be more sensitive than usual (this sensitivity may be increased by certain drugs) Use sun protection creams (check before use if you are having treatment to your scalp) or cover your head with wigs scarves, bandanas or hats.

We don’t lose more heat though our head that other parts of the body however, if the rest of your body is wrapped up and your head left exposed you cool down quicker in cold weather so, a warm hat or snood in cold weather is also a good idea.

Wigs

Many people choose to cope with visible air loss by wearing a wig. Even if you don’t plan to wear one everyday it can be reassuring to know you have one if you need to go to a special occasion e.g. a wedding or a party where you might not want to have to explain hair loss to people you haven’t seen for a while.

A good range of synthetic wigs is available on the NHS and your health care team will advise you about stockists and whether they are free or if you need to contribute to the cost as this varies depending on where you live. If you do plan to wear a wig visiting stockists before you lose your hair will help you find a match for your natural hair. However you may also choose a wig that is completely different to your own hair. The wig stockist or your hairdresser will be able to advise you on styling and caring for your wig.

Alternatives to wigs

If you would prefer not to wear a wig, or would like an alternative to change with, a good range of hats, scarves, head wraps and turbans are available.  These are widely available in department stores or online.

Caring for hair as it regrows

When hair regrows after treatment it is often a different shade and texture and may be either curlier or straighter than before due to lower levels in protein in the hair . This is usually temporary and most hair returns to its usual colour and texture over time.

The changes in levels of protein in hair affects the uptake of hair dye and your scalp may also be more sensitive to dyes and treatments even if you have used it before so it is advised not to colour or dye or perm your hair for 6 months after treatment and to seek professional advice when you do.

Your new hair will be delicate, so to protect it as it grows, brush only gently with a soft hairbrush and use the low heat setting if you use a hairdryer.

Managing your emotions

Hair loss can feel a very visible sign to the outside world that you have cancer and experiencing hair loss is a deeply personal and upsetting experience for many people. You may feel a loss of identity along with the loss of hair and feel vulnerable and less confident than usual.

Talk to your healthcare team or Maggie’s team about ways of managing any hair loss you experience during cancer treatment.

Many people find talking to others with similar experience helpful. You could read and/or post in our forum and ask others about their experiences or drop into any of our physical Centres , find out more about our workshops and meet others face to face.

Maggie’s Workshops

Maggie's hold workshops for managing hair loss these bring together people dealing with hair loss, to share experience and learn different ways of managing practical and emotional challenges.

Look good Feel Better workshops  are also held in our cebtres and offer skincare and beauty advice to boost confidence and body image during or soon after cancer treatment.


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