Coping With Hair Loss and Hair Thinning While Living With Cancer

Several cancer treatments may cause your hair to fall out. Hair loss, also called alopecia, often improves once treatments are done. Certain strategies may help prevent or manage hair loss.

Key takeaways:

What is hair loss like?

People experience a range of different hair effects when going through cancer treatments. Some become completely bald. Others keep some of their hair but find it to be more thin than usual. Some individuals may not notice any hair loss at all. Hair loss can also happen in locations besides the head — for example, the hair that makes up the eyebrows or eyelashes may fall out.

Hair loss may occur quickly after treatment begins. In other cases, it happens slowly over time.

Side effects like hair loss usually go away once you are done with treatment. However, it may take a few months for hair to regrow. Once it comes back, your hair may look different. It could be a different color or look curlier or straighter. Your hair may go back to its original appearance over time.

The hair changes you experience depend on multiple factors, including the treatments you are using, your treatment dosage, how long you receive a particular therapy, and personal health factors.

Which cancer treatments cause hair loss?

Many cancer treatments damage healthy cells that grow and divide quickly. In particular, the cells in your hair follicles are continually dividing and producing new cells that form hair. These cells may be targeted by cancer therapies, leading to issues like hair loss and thin hair.

You may experience thinner hair or complete hair loss with treatments like:

Chemotherapy — These drugs travel throughout the body in the bloodstream. They may make you lose hair in many areas, including on your head.

Radiation therapy — Radiation therapy can also cause hair to fall out. However, hair loss usually only occurs in the area that is receiving radiation. For example, you may lose the hair on your head if you are undergoing radiation therapy to treat cancer in the head or brain, or your pubic hair may fall out if you are receiving radiation treatments to the pelvis. In some cases, hair may not regrow after very high radiation doses.

Targeted therapy — Certain targeted therapy drugs can cause thin or dry hair as a side effect. They don’t usually cause you to lose all of your hair.

Hormone therapy — People with breast cancer or prostate cancer may use hormone therapy to stop cancer cells from growing. This treatment may cause hair to thin out.

If you’re not sure whether your treatment plan may affect your hair, ask your cancer care team. They can help you understand which side effects to expect.

Preventing hair loss

It’s not always possible to prevent thinned hair, but certain treatments can help.

Cooling caps may help you keep more hair while going through chemotherapy. Cooling caps are hats containing cold liquid that you wear during your treatments. Cool temperatures may help prevent your hair follicles from being damaged. Using ice packs on your head while getting chemotherapy may have the same effect.

Your doctor may also be able to prescribe medications like spironolactone (Aldactone) to reduce your hair loss or help your hair grow back more quickly. Another medication, minoxidil (Rogaine), is available over the counter. Rogaine can encourage your hair to regrow.

Managing hair loss

Cancer treatment side effects, including hair loss and hair thinning, can be managed with palliative care or supportive care. A palliative care specialist can help you learn how to feel better and deal with hair changes. There are also several strategies you can try at home.

Being gentle may help lessen damage to your hair and scalp. You may want to try:

  • Keeping your hair down rather than putting it in tight ponytails or braids that could damage your hair.
  • Avoiding hair clips that could scratch your scalp.
  • Washing your hair every few days rather than every day.
  • Using mild shampoos and conditioners that contain moisturizers.
  • Moisturizing your scalp with lotion or mineral oil.
  • Using a wide-tooth comb or a soft hairbrush.
  • Staying away from bleaching, dyeing, relaxing, or perming your hair.
  • Avoiding styling your hair with heat from blow dryers, curling irons, or straighteners.
  • Using a soft pillowcase.

If it is likely that your treatments will lead to hair loss, you may want to take additional measures. Short hairstyles may make it easier to manage hair loss or thinness. It may also feel better to shave off all of your hair before you start losing it. If you go this route, it’s best to use an electric shaver — a razor is more likely to cut your skin.

Some people who go through hair loss wear wigs. You can use a wig to change up your hair color or style. Alternatively, you can keep a lock of your hair and find a wig that matches your original color. Look for wigs you like at local stores or websites that specialize in helping people with cancer. In some cases, your insurance may cover the cost of a wig, or the cost may be tax deductible.

Some cancer survivors don’t like the way wigs look or find them uncomfortable. If you want another option, you can cover your head with a bandanna or scarf, wear a hat, or simply go bald. However, make sure to cover up with a hat or sunscreen when you go outdoors.

If you lose your eyelashes, you can use special types of fake eyelashes to replace them. Additionally, eyebrows can be drawn on with makeup.

Coping with hair loss

Dealing with hair loss can have a major impact on your self-confidence and stress levels. Some people find it useful to talk to a counselor or therapist for extra support in coping with this and other cancer-related issues. It may also help to commiserate with other cancer survivors who have been in this position. To find other people with similar experiences, join a local support group, online forum, or social media group.

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