Hair cells are vulnerable to chemo drugs, but you have options.
Hair loss is commonly associated with having cancer, but it’s actually a side effect of chemotherapy, not the cancer itself. Still, losing your hair during chemotherapy is an emotional topic for many patients, who may feel like their hair loss is a visible marker of their cancer to the rest of the world.
“Hair loss can be very anxiety-provoking for patients,” says Ashish Saxena, MD, oncologist at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian. “It’s something that everyone sees. It also has a lot to do with how a person feels about themselves.”
Understanding that the hair loss is temporary can help you cope with those feelings, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). It can also help if you understand exactly why hair falls out during chemotherapy.
Chemotherapy is a class of drugs that attacks all rapidly dividing cells in the body, which includes cancer cells. Unfortunately, some normal, healthy cells also divide quickly, making them targets of chemotherapy drugs as well. When chemo damages these cells, it results in side effects. (Learn more about chemotherapy side effects here.)
Hair cells reproduce quickly to support hair growth, so they one of the normal cells that are vulnerable to chemotherapy drugs. The hair loss usually begins a couple weeks after the chemotherapy begins, and it will typically get worse after a couple months. Luckily, the hair loss is temporary and usually comes back within months of ending chemotherapy sessions. The hair may grow back with a slightly different color or texture.
Can You Prevent Hair Loss from Chemotherapy?
Most people assume hair loss from chemotherapy is a sure thing, but that’s not the case. “Not all chemotherapy is likely to give you hair loss,” says Dr. Saxena. “Some chemotherapies have a high likelihood to do so, and some have a very small chance.”
Unfortunately, there are no sure-fire ways to guarantee no hair loss will occur. However, there are some methods that can reduce the amount of hair loss for certain individuals.
Cooling caps are one of the most effective ways that have been studied to minimize hair loss during chemotherapy. These caps are worn before, during, and after chemotherapy sessions.
Here’s how cooling caps work: They constrict blood vessels near the scalp to reduce how much chemo reaches the hair follicles (since chemo drugs travel through the bloodstream). Additionally, the coldness slows the activity of the hair cells, so they’re less attractive to chemo drugs.
But cooling caps aren’t guaranteed to prevent hair loss completely. Overall studies have shown mixed results; however, newer studies have been generally more positive, and one study found that women who used cooling caps lost less than half of their hair, according to ACS.
Your hair care can also play a role. The following tips help reduce hair loss among all individuals with or without chemotherapy, so they are especially important tips to follow when hair growth is under attack. It’s best to avoid:
Making braids or ponytails, which pull the hair
Dyeing and bleaching
Or using heat (e.g., blow drying, curling, flat ironing).
If hair loss occurs and you’re not comfortable letting others see it, you still have options. Most patients turn to wigs, scarves, or turbans. You might be surprised to know that many insurance companies cover the cost of wigs for patients undergoing chemotherapy.
“There are a lot of options available,” says Dr. Saxena. “There’s a lot of support for [people with hair loss] in the community and the medical field for helping deal with this issue.”
00:00:00,163 --> 00:00:03,062
00:00:03,062 --> 00:00:07,996
Hair loss can be very
anxiety-provoking for patients.
00:00:07,996 --> 00:00:09,744
It's something that everyone sees.
00:00:09,744 --> 00:00:13,185
It also has a lot to do with how a person
feels about themselves and how they look.
00:00:13,185 --> 00:00:16,749
And so for that reason, it can be very
emotional for a patient when they learn
00:00:16,749 --> 00:00:20,331
that the chemotherapy drug is likely
going to cause them to lose their hair.
00:00:20,331 --> 00:00:26,732
00:00:26,732 --> 00:00:28,046
In terms of hair loss,
00:00:28,046 --> 00:00:31,170
not all chemotherapy is
likely to give you hair loss.
00:00:31,170 --> 00:00:34,036
Some chemotherapies have a high
likelihood to do so, and
00:00:34,036 --> 00:00:36,557
some have a very small
chance of giving hair loss.
00:00:36,557 --> 00:00:41,268
Some chemotherapies can cause hair loss by
affecting the hair follicles and affecting
00:00:41,268 --> 00:00:45,801
the way their hair grows, and so it's not
able to grow properly and then falls out.
00:00:45,801 --> 00:00:49,104
There's also dependence on
the dose of the chemotherapy,
00:00:49,104 --> 00:00:50,952
whether it's given all at once or
00:00:50,952 --> 00:00:55,853
whether it's broken up into smaller doses
more frequently, and also the drug itself.
00:00:55,853 --> 00:00:59,554
So some drugs are more likely
to cause hair loss than others.
00:00:59,554 --> 00:01:03,990
For the chemotherapy types that cause hair
loss, it's generally reversible meaning
00:01:03,990 --> 00:01:07,526
once the chemotherapy is all done,
the hair will start to grow back.
00:01:07,526 --> 00:01:09,197
That could take several months to happen.
00:01:09,197 --> 00:01:12,570
And it may not grow back
exactly as it was before, but
00:01:12,570 --> 00:01:15,649
it does grow back in
the vast majority of cases.
00:01:15,649 --> 00:01:20,627
There are options for patients that are
very concerned about losing their hair.
00:01:20,627 --> 00:01:25,091
One of which is a cooling cap which has
mostly been studied in breast cancer
00:01:25,091 --> 00:01:29,787
patients who are receiving chemotherapy
that's likely to cause hair loss.
00:01:29,787 --> 00:01:34,872
This can help decrease the amount of
chemotherapy going to the scalp and
00:01:34,872 --> 00:01:39,376
may decrease the chances of
a person losing most of their hair.
00:01:39,376 --> 00:01:43,963
For patients, it's important to know
their hair loss is not permanent thing.
00:01:43,963 --> 00:01:48,942
That they are a lot of options available
to help them deal with that hair loss
00:01:48,942 --> 00:01:53,800
while they're going through
chemotherapy and then also afterwards.
00:01:53,800 --> 00:01:57,566
And that there's a lot of support for
them in the community and
00:01:57,566 --> 00:02:00,762
the medical field for
helping deal with this issue.
00:02:00,762 --> 00:02:07,180
Cancer chemotherapy. Washington, DC: MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine. (Accessed on June 27, 2019 at https://medlineplus.gov/cancerchemotherapy.html.)
Chemotherapy side effects. Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society, 2016. (Accessed on June 27, 2019 at https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/treatment-types/chemotherapy/chemotherapy-side-effects.html.)
Getting help for hair loss. Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society, 2018. (Accessed on June 27, 2019 at https://www.cancer.org/content/dam/cancer-org/cancer-control/en/booklets-flyers/getting-help-for-hair-loss.pdf.)
Hair loss. Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society. (Accessed on June 27, 2019 at https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/physical-side-effects/hair-loss.html.)