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Cancer Treatments and Hair Loss

EarthKind Hair Threads Blog - Cancer Treatments & Hair Loss

Hair loss is a common and well-known side effect of cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Losing hair can be a distressing experience for anyone, especially for cancer patients already dealing with the physical and emotional toll of their illness.

But why does hair loss occur during cancer treatment, and is there anything that can prevent or manage it? 

In this blog post, we'll explore the reasons behind hair loss in cancer patients and get the expert opinion of Trichologist Tony Maleedy, sharing what can be done to help.

How Chemotherapy Treatments Affect Hair Growth

Cancer is caused by rapidly dividing, out-of-control cells, frequently invading and destroying adjacent tissues. 

Chemotherapy drugs designed to kill cancer cells work by slowing down this rate of cell division. However, other fast-growing cells in the body can be affected by this form of treatment. 

"Hair-forming cells located at the base of the hair follicle have a high rate of activity and cell division; under normal circumstances, they are the second fastest-growing part of the body and, therefore, are susceptible to these types of drugs. 

Chemotherapy drugs interrupt the growing phase of the hair cycle, bringing it to a sudden stop and causing the hair to fall out. Hair follicles then move into a temporary resting phase with no hair fibre growth activity. 

This type of hair loss is called anagen effluvium and can develop in a short space of time. The amount and speed of hair loss can vary depending on the type and dose of the treatment, as well as the individual patient's genetics and overall health. Some patients may only experience mild thinning, while others may lose all of their hair in just a few days, including eyebrows, eyelashes, and body hair."

New Hair Growth

Anagen effluvium is not a permanent form of hair loss, so when chemotherapy ends, hair follicles rapidly reorganise themselves and start producing hair again. This is an important point; in almost all cases, once the treatment has stopped, the hair grows back, and there is no permanent loss of hair. 

"New hair is usually visible within four weeks of completing chemotherapy, but this new hair will, at first, appear very fine. This is mostly because new, virgin hair grows with a pointed end so, at first, you only see the tips of the hair with a short diameter. As the hair grows longer the hair shaft reaches its full diameter and in a short time this hair, and the new hair that follows it, will begin to show as a full head of hair.  

The temptation is, understandably, to let the hair grow to some length before having it cut, but because the new hair is growing with a very fine, pointed tip it is often better to have the hair cut at an early stage because the appearance of thousands of cut hairs with a blunt end is significantly greater than the appearance of the same number of hairs tapering off to nothing."

Radiation Therapy

Like Chemotherapy, Radiation Therapy can also impact the hair. The difference is that Radiation therapy is localised, and so only generally causes hair loss in the region of the therapy. Hair usually grows back within several months of completing the treatment - however, in rare cases, the hair may not grow back again.

Colouring New Hair

Some people wonder when they can colour their hair as it grows back. 

"Newly grown hair can be coloured as soon as the patient wishes and your hairdresser finds it practical to do so. Colouring will not interfere with the growth of the new hair - but it is advisable to get the newly growing hair coloured professionally."

Changes to the Hair

Occasionally there is a change in the pattern of hair growth - this is because the sensitive regions of the hair follicles may have distorted slightly, causing the shape of hair to change, so what was straight hair previously may become curly and vice versa.

Helping to Prevent Hair Loss

Using a 'cold cap' or scalp cooling machine inhibits the flow of blood to the capillaries and limits the amount of chemotherapy drugs that reach the root of the hair follicles in the scalp. 

"Cooling the scalp and inhibiting the flow of blood to the capillaries by use of a 'cold cap' or a machine that cools the scalp, can limit the amount of chemotherapy drugs that reach the root of the follicles. This can minimise the detrimental effect these drugs have on the hair follicles, resulting in less hair being lost. This form of preventative hair loss treatment should be discussed with the specialist in charge of the drug treatment."

"It is also important to care for the scalp and remaining hair during treatment. Patients should avoid harsh chemicals, heat styling, and tight hairstyles that could damage the hair or scalp. Gentle scalp massage, regular washing with a mild, SLS-free shampoo, and avoiding excessive brushing or combing can help keep the scalp healthy and promote new hair growth once treatment is over."

In Conclusion

Hair loss can be a difficult and emotional side effect of cancer treatment, but there are ways to manage it and maintain a sense of dignity and control. Patients should work with their healthcare team and support network to find the best strategies for their individual needs. With time and care, patients can overcome this temporary challenge and focus on their recovery and overall well-being.

Useful links for those concerned about any form of hair loss:

Institute of Trichologists

Katie Dear, Hair Loss Consultant, and Wig Specialist