Hair loss is one possible side effect caused by cancer treatments. You may feel a range of feelings such as anger, sadness or anxiety. However, hair loss is usually a temporary side effect and there are ways of managing it.
What is hair loss?
Some cancer treatments may cause hair loss. This is due to the fact that any treatment which acts on growing cancer cells may also affect other growing cells like hair roots (follicles). Before treatment starts, talk to your doctor about the possibility of hair loss as a side effect of cancer treatment and the level of hair loss you can expect.
What treatments can cause hair loss?
Not all cancer treatments will cause hair loss. Hair loss is mostly associated with chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Treatments such as targeted therapy, hormone therapy and immunotherapy are more likely to cause hair thinning or slow growth of hair.
Chemotherapy and hair loss
Chemotherapy uses drugs to stop or slow the abnormal growth of cancer cells. You may experience complete hair loss, hair thinning or no hair loss. The amount of hair loss will depend on the type of chemotherapy drug you receive, the dose and the timing of treatment.
Chemotherapy can cause the hair on your head to break off at or near the scalp. You may feel some itchiness or scalp irritation shortly before your hair falls out. In addition, you may notice fallen hair when you brush it or on your pillow or sheets.
Hair loss can occur anywhere on the body – the scalp, chest, underarms, underarms, eyebrows, eye lashes and pubic area. Hair loss commonly begins two or three weeks after your treatment has started.
Radiation therapy and hair loss
Radiation therapy (radiotherapy) uses x-rays (radiation) to destroy or injure cancer cells to stop them multiplying. You may experience hair loss if you have hair in the area being treated. This can happen during or just after treatment. Hair will only fall out in the area of the body being treated with radiation therapy.
Hair regrowth should start within a few weeks of treatment ending but occasionally hair loss can be permanent.
Managing hair loss
Many people feel self-conscious about their appearance when they lose their hair. It is common to experience a range of feelings such as anger, anxiety and acceptance.
You may also find that other people don’t know how to react to your hair loss. Children can also have feelings of anxiety and fear. See our Talking to Kids About Cancer booklet for tips on how to discuss any side effects during cancer treatment, including hair loss.
Some people choose to cut their hair before treatment starts to help prepare themselves for any possible hair loss. Others choose to shave their head in the early stages of hair loss.
Should I wear a wig or head scarf?
It is important to do what makes you feel most comfortable. Some people choose to wear a wig, scarf, hat or turban, while others prefer not to cover their head. Contact your local Cancer Council on 13 11 20 to see if they offer a wig service.
Will my hair grow back?
For most people, hair loss is temporary. After chemotherapy your hair will grow back and you can expect to have a reasonable head of hair four to 12 months after treatment has ended. After radiation therapy your hair usually grows back. After a large dose of radiation therapy, the hair may not recover fully and there may be some permanent hair loss.
Talk to your doctor about what to expect or call Cancer Council on 13 11 20.
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