When someone is delivered the bad news that they have cancer, there could be nothing more devastating, because for most, it almost seems like the end of the world. What generally follows is a series of tests and treatments, sometimes including chemotherapy and radiation. The biggest issue that most people undergoing such treatment tackle is the loss of hair and for many it is a difficult problem to cope with.

In this article, we will attempt to decipher the hair loss that is almost always associated with cancer. We will look at why the hair loss occurs, what a person undergoing such a treatment should expect, whether the hair loss can be prevented and most importantly, what to do before, during and after the process.

The drugs used for the procedure called chemotherapy are extremely strong and powerful and these are meant to attack the cancer cells, which are growing exponentially in the body. However, these drugs are not able to distinguish between the good cells and the bad ones. As a result, many of the good cells are also destroyed, and for many people, this includes the cells that are essential for growth of new hair. The drugs affect the growing phase of the hair cycle(anagen phase), resulting in weakening and improper formation of  the hair that is then shed off. This is also called as anagen effluvium. Though most of the cancer drugs affect in this manner, some causes both anagen and telogen effluvium.

hair loss and chemotherapy

As scalp has maximum hair in anagen phase (80-90%), they are affected the most. But if the drugs are given at higher doses and for longer duration, it can also involve the hairs in other areas like eyebrows, eyelashes, beard,axilla and pubic areas.

The amount or severity of hair loss will depend on the dosage, duration of therapy and in which part of the hair cycle it is given. It is important that people undergoing this treatment talk to their doctors and gain a clear understanding of what all can happen in the days to come.

  • Now we will talk about what people undergoing this treatment should expect in the days to come:

In most cases, the hair loss will start becoming obvious within the first one to three weeks, after the treatment has been started. The hair may fall out all of a sudden in clumps or can occur gradually depending on what stage they got affected.

This hair loss will continue till the treatment has come to an end and even for a few weeks after that. The severity of the dosage and the number of different medicines givenwill determine the final severity of hair loss.

However, in most cases, this hair loss is reversible and once the treatment has been completed, the hair will start growing back over a period of 1-3months. But there is quite the chance that the new hair maybe of a different texture, thickness, waviness or even grey in colour.

  • We will now look at possible methods of preventing hair loss during chemotherapy:

While there is no sure shot method of preventing hair loss during or after chemotherapy, there are certainly methods using which, the hair loss can be reduced. One of the methods is to reduce the delivery of the drug to hair follicle by temporarily obstructing the blood flow. This can be done by using a scalp tourniquet or by producing scalp hypothermia. The latter is basically reducing the temperature of the scalp with the help of cooling agents which are delivered using specially designed caps. Both the procedures however have their own set of problems and can be done only if your doctor approves.

The use of Minoxidil can be applied before and even during the procedure, and while it might not stop hair loss, it can certainly slow the process down. In certain cases, constant use of Minoxidil has shown that regrowth of hair post completion of chemotherapyhappens much faster.

  • Finally, it is important to keep in mind certain points, which could assist in gaining control over the hair loss:

Before treatment:

  • Make sure there are no chemical treatments done on the hair, such as bleaching, colouring or perming, before the chemotherapy starts. It is also advisable that one not use hot irons or curling tongs before the procedure as the intense heat can cause much damage.
  • Hair loss is almost inevitable, but one way of ensuring that the hair loss does not look obvious is by cutting it short. The act of cutting long hair will also allow for a smoother transition.

During treatment:

  • Use soft brushes and wash hair only when necessary. It is also a good idea to use a baby shampoo, since the chemicals are gentler.
  • Shaving the head completely might be a good idea at such a time, because in many cases, there is itching on the scalp during chemotherapy.
  • Using a satin pillowcase will be better, as it less likely catches the fragile hair

After treatment:

Even after the treatment has been completed it is wise to continue with the gentle treatment. Staying away from styling products and tools would be a given, as would be vigorous brushing. Stick to gentle combs or brushes and even when the hair starts to regrow, it is best that nature follow its course.

Cancer or chemotherapy is not the end of the world and neither is hair loss!



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