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Chemotherapy and Hair Loss: Why and How Hair Falls Out

The loss of hair is a disheartening cancer treatment side effect. But it’s a temporary problem on the path to recovery – with a surprise ending.

 

It’s well understood that undergoing treatment for cancer – and in some cases, for non-cancerous conditions such as blood disorders and autoimmune diseases (e.g., lupus) – very often requires chemotherapy. It’s life-saving medicine, and a large part of why the five-year survival rate for all cancers is now 67 percent.

 

But chemotherapy is a blunt instrument, so to speak, in that it hurts more than just the cancer. Its job is to kill cells and is applied as best as medical professionals can to the cancerous growths. But it’s generally applied systemically, meaning it courses through the patient’s bloodstream and therefore reaches all other parts of that body.

 

One such part are the hair follicles, the root portion of hair. Both on the body and the scalp (this varies between individuals), the hair growing from those follicles very often (most often, actually) falls out. Fortunately, the loss of hair is usually not permanent and will regrow a few to several months after the chemotherapeutic treatment ends.

 

When this type of hair loss happens to women and, especially, children, it is often recommended by physicians to seek out a hair loss treatment clinic that provides temporary hair prosthetics. These are also called “cancer wigs”. These wigs are are typically customized before the chemo treatment in order to match the style, color, texture, and other tendencies of one’s hair. Cancer wigs are one of the very few medical hair loss solutions that can be reimbursed by medical insurance.

 

It’s not just about hair loss from chemo

 

The loss of hair from anything, be it chemotherapy or other causes, is very often unwelcome news. But suffice it to say, that’s not the only side effect from chemotherapy.

 

Chemo causes a general fatigue, leading many patients to curtail work and social activities. Arrangements should be made with employers to cut back on your workload, for example. Relatedly, because chemotherapy lowers the amount of red blood cells (which carry oxygen to the body), the patient will experience anemia, which is characterized by fatigue, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, and a pale complexion.

 

Chemotherapy is notorious for causing nausea. This can be treated with antiemetic medications, and where legal, cannabis and cannabinoids (derivatives of cannabis/marijuana). The federally legal version of this is dronabinol (Marinol), a gelatin capsule that also stimulates appetite to reduce unwanted weight loss.

 

Chemo’s other effects: mucositis (soreness in the lining of the mouth), loss of appetite, bruising and bleeding, infections, changes to skin and nails, memory and concentration problems, insomnia, sex and fertility cessation, diarrhea or constipation, and emotional trauma.

 

But when the hair comes back…

 

Have you ever heard the term, “chemo curls?” It’s a real thing – as it often happens, patients will see a return of their hair in a different texture and even a different color.

 

This isn’t universal, but many patients who previously had straight hair will see their hair grow back curlier and thicker. What a surprise after losing one’s hair and perhaps shaving the remnants for a completely bald pate for weeks and months. But for some, the regrowth will be finer and more delicate. Some even experience breakage after the new hair grows in a few inches.

 

This will change after about a year, as the hair texture and curliness revert to your pre-cancer, pre-chemotherapy state. Which is probably where most patients are happy to be.