Chemo & Hair Loss: A Guide for Cancer Patients
There is no way around it. Managing your life with cancer has a great number of challenges. Some you can control or manage but others you cannot. For many individuals, the worst thing about chemotherapy is the thought of losing their hair. Understanding the process and being prepared for hair loss is half the battle.
Chemotherapy affects everyone differently. Some people will lose their hair completely while others may only experience thinning. Some patients may not see any affects at all. It is helpful to prepare yourself as you discover how chemotherapy may affect you. Begin by talking to your doctor or nurse. They will know the likelihood of hair loss based on the type of chemo drugs prescribed.
Why Chemo Causes Hair Loss
Different classes of chemotherapy drugs typically lead to varying degrees of hair loss. Chemotherapy drugs are designed to slow down the rapid cell growth of cancer cells by attacking the cells' DNA to prohibit growth. Because chemo drugs are designed to kill rapidly dividing cells, other rapidly growing cells in the body (such as the cells that cause hair growth) are also affected.
Not all chemotherapy will cause hair loss, but certain drugs will cause loss in varying degrees. For example, Methotrexate is known to cause thinning of hair in some patients, but it is rare for anyone on this type of drug to experience complete hair loss. Adiamycin and Taxol can both cause complete hair loss on the head, as well as the body and face, while Cytoxan and 5-fluorouracil can cause varying degrees of hair loss from minimal to significant. One encouraging thing to remember is that your hair loss means that your chemo treatments are working.
For more information on why chemo causes hair loss, visit this blog post.
What to Expect
As soon as you learn that your chemo treatments will result in hair loss, begin shopping for wigs, headcoverings and scarves while you still have hair. Give yourself plenty of time to shop. Being prepared will relieve much of the anxiety and stress that comes with losing your hair.
Losing Your Hair:
The experience of hair loss will vary from person to person. Once treatments begin, some people notice their hair gradually thinning out. Others find that their hair falls out in clumps when they brush it, or just throughout the day in the bathtub or on a pillow. Some patients will experience baldness only on the head, while others will lose facial hair, eyebrows, eyelashes and other body hair. Most chemo patients report losing their hair approximately 2-4 weeks after starting treatments. Just before hair loss begins, some people report the feeling of "itching," or "tickling" on the scalp. Because chemo causes your hair follicles to become inflamed, those with very sensitive scalps may experience "scalp pain." In fact, it's the inflamation of your hair follicles that causes the hair to fall out. Shaving your head can relieve these sensations if they are bothersome. They will also go away as soon as your hair falls out naturally.
You may feel more in control of your hair loss by cutting your hair very short to gradually ease into hair loss. You may wish to shave it off altogether. This often eliminates the trauma of your hair falling out over a period of days and makes it easier to manage. If you do retain a small amount of hair, a shorter hairstyle will make any remaining hair look thicker and fuller. If you decide to shave your head, use an electric shaver instead of a razor to avoid cutting yourself.
Most chemotherapy patients find that they gain peace of mind by being prepared and proactively shopping for headwear and wigs before hair loss happens. Others decide to forgo wigs altogether and go bald. No matter what you decide, having something warm for your head in the evenings or out and about on cold days is a must. Also, considering sun protection is essential. The hair loss process is as unique as you are, so go with what feels right for you.
Caring for Your Scalp
During chemotherapy treatments, it is important to treat your hair and scalp with care. If you are fortunate enough to keep your hair during chemo treatments, it can often become brittle, thin and damaged. Your scalp may also become dry, itchy and flaky. Protect your hair by avoiding any unnecessary stress. Use a mild conditioning shampoo, such as Alra Shampoo, and use warm but not hot water when washing your hair. Pat your hair dry with a soft towel instead of wringing or twisting it. Avoid chemical treatments, colors, bleaches, perms, hair dryers and heated styling tools.
If you do lose your hair, there are a couple of things to keep in mind:
Cleansing Your Scalp
If you do lose your hair, your scalp can become tender. It is important to continue cleansing your scalp using a mild conditioning shampoo even once the hair has fallen out.
Protecting Your Scalp
Without your hair, your scalp will be much more sensitive to sunburn. To prevent sunburns on the scalp, always apply a high SPF sunscreen before sun exposure. Chemotherapy treatments can also make the skin more sensitive to sunlight so it is especially important to use sunscreen wherever any of your skin is exposed to sunlight.
In addition to wearing sunscreen, some of our hats feature SPF built right into the fabric to help protect your scalp from the sun's harmful rays. This can provide an extra layer of protection, while also keeping the sun out of the eyes and off of the face.
Many women find that they prefer to wear headwear instead of wigs. We offer many options to meet each individual's unique personality.
When you select a hat, choose one that is comfortable. Our hats are specially designed for a comfortable and secure fit. They will provide a flattering look and full head coverage to a bald head. Because they are fashionable, they will be indistinguishable in appearance from the hats you will see in your favorite fashion magazine. But they will be comfortable, they will fit, and they will conceal your hair loss seamlessly. Brimmed, structured, soft, textured, fancy, casual, or anything in between...with so many hats to choose from, your options are unlimited!
These versatile head coverings can be worn in many ways and are made from many different fabric types. Some cancer patients do not want (or are unable to) tie a scarf, so we offer both untied and pre-tied head scarf options. A scarf is an elegant option for women who want to experiment with sophisticated, feminine looks in various patterns and colors.
These caps have become a “go to” cancer hat for many women with hair loss. Turbans are typically made from soft material and constructed to look like fabric wrapped around the head. These are the perfect choice for every day wear and can be dressed up or down with accessories depending on the occasion. Turbans are also a great choice because they can double as sleep caps.
It is important to maintain your body heat during hair loss because 30-50% of a person's body heat is lost through the head. Our sleep caps are a very useful way to maintain your body heat at night and are a comfortable, practical option during hospital stays. Our company began because our founder could not find an attractive sleep cap to wear during her cancer treatments. When she came out of surgery for breast cancer, the doctors had left the surgical cap on her head because she was bald. She was mortified, and vowed to create a pretty sleep cap so that others would not have to endure the shame she felt.
See our Cancer Hats Buying Guide for more detailed information about selecting a cancer hat, including an explanation of fabric types, what to look for in a cancer hat, accessory ideas, and care instructions.
Wigs allow you to maintain the appearance of having hair throughout treatments. Fashioned in almost any style and color you can imagine, it's possible to find both a style and color that look very much like your own hair. Unlike the wigs of yesteryear, today's wigs are comfortable and extremely natural looking.
We recommend shopping for your wig as soon as you know that you will lose your hair. Shopping for your wig while you still have hair will not only make the transition easier; it will allow you to easily match your wig to your current hair color and style.
Many cancer patients come to us looking for a human hair wig. Although we carry human hair wigs, we encourage our chemotherapy patients to select a synthetic wig instead. Our high quality synthetic wigs will be indistinguishable in appearance from a human hair wig, but they are much more affordable and easier to take care of. If you choose a high quality wig, no one will be able to tell that it's not your real hair.
When you select a wig, you will most likely want to choose one that matches your own hair color. If you save a hair swatch and mail it to us, our certified wig specialist will help you select the closest possible color match to your own hair. You can personalize your wig by having your hair stylist cut and style it. This will ensure that your hairpiece is cut to frame your face and that it is styled in the most flattering manner for your particular face shape. For best results, you should be wearing your wig while it is being cut.
A wig is going to feel different at first. Give yourself time to adjust to the new sensation. Wig caps, comfort gel headbands, or wig grippers an be worn under a wig to add additional comfort. To help get you started, see our Wig Buying Guide for step-by-step instructions on how to select the perfect wig for you!
Facial and Body Hair Loss
Every person reacts differently to treatments. Hair loss may be limited to your scalp area, or you may lose the hair on your entire body, including your eyebrows and eyelashes. Many cancer patients find this intimidating, but we offer several easy options for re-creating a realistic eyebrow including temporary eyebrow tattoos, eyebrow makeup and realistic human hair eyebrows that are easily applied to the skin.
Our false eyelashes are specially designed to create a natural look for chemo patients. They are easy to apply with a little practice.
Coping with Your Emotions
While hair loss is not a specifically medically serious condition, it can have a significant psychological impact on an individual. Some people experience a wide range of emotions during and following hair loss.
When you are going through hair loss and chemotherapy treatments, it is important to talk about your feelings. Feeling angry and sad is a normal part of hair loss. Most cancer patients will go through the 5 stages of the grieving process as they begin to cope with their diagnosis. The stages of grief are: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. Every person grieves differently. Be aware of your feelings and recognize that they are normal and expected.
It is especially important to build your support network and lean on others for support. Cancer support groups bring great comfort to many patients. It helps tremendously to share your experience with others who are also going through the same experience. You will gain insight and inspiration from those who are completing their journey. For more information on finding a support group, see our blog post on Cancer Support Groups.
Talk to your health care professional, minister or someone you trust and remember to turn to your support network as you face this challenge.
The good news is that your hair should grow back following treatments. It is not uncommon for it to grow back with a different color or texture, although some find that it comes back in the same as it was before treatments. If your hair grows back in with a different color or texture, these changes are usually temporary. Many individuals find that their hair will return to its original color and texture over several months. Hair regrowth is unique to every individual.
Hair may take several weeks after finishing treatment to begin regrowth. You will want to continue using gentle shampoo once your hair does start to grow back, as it may be brittle and dry. Continuing to care for your scalp in this manner will keep it nourished and encourage continued growth as your hair comes back in. Avoid harsh or strenuous brushing and high heat. Use a soft massaging brush and gentle settings when using hair dryers.
Most of our customers like their headcovers so much that they continue to wear them even after their chemo treatments are over and their hair has grown back! Donating your headwear to a local treatment center or cancer support group is also a great way to give back to the cancer community and help others dealing with hair loss once your hair loss journey is complete.
Please take a moment to ask any questions and leave us your feedback on this resource below.
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- Mrs Review by Jen
I've ordered several head coverings and have been very pleased with each of them -- different styles, fabrics, colors, patterns. For the first couple of months after chemo hair loss, I wore one every time I walked out the door, even to take my dog into the yard, because I was mortified to be seen "bald" by anyone. Now I only wear them when I go out in public where my baldness might make others uncomfortable. Personally, I've become quite accustomed to my "stubble" and am really enjoying the extra time saved when getting dressed and saving the ridiculous amounts of money at the hairdresser. It's become a freeing experience. I also had a very tender scalp for weeks when the hair started coming out, so I ended up having it all shaved off, on an impulse. It was traumatic at first, but the soreness stopped immediately, so I didn't regret doing it. I completed chemo 2 months ago and my hair is being very slow to begin growing back -- it's barely noticeable. But that's OK. I'm now comfortable with whatever happens. A head of hair does not determine quality of life. I didn't get a wig, probably never will, because the head coverings work so well and are super easy to wear. I do recommend getting head coverings before losing too much hair. It helped make the transition much easier. The caps seem to be a smaller fit, but not so much that they're unwearable or don't cover enough; they're just a snug fit on an average sized head. I especially like the pre-tied scarfs, preferring the ones with a longer "tail", and will be buying more of those soon. My best to each of you as you go through whatever challenge has brought you to this wonderful site! (Posted on 08/29/2017)
- Ms Review by Teresa
I just received my order this morning, I am delighted with the Easy-On Scarf's so comfy to wear. I have just started to lose my hair not sure how I'm feeling but hey ho here I go. I have found your site very helpful, best of luck and good wishes to all out there going through the same experience. Kindest regards Teresa ( Ireland ) (Posted on 06/12/2017)
- Thank you so much Teresa. We are so glad you found our site helpful. Best of luck to you with your treatments! (06/24/2017)
- Dr Review by Sudie
This site was very helpful. I have thinning hair right now, but fear that it is going to keep thinning until it all is gone. I think that I have a good shape to my head, but hats have always felt tight and uncomfortable. This may mean that my head is bigger than the average hat wearer. I am 80 years old, so I am very used to having hair. At my age, my face needs all the help it can get. That includes an attractive head covering!(Posted on 05/03/2017)
- Mrs Review by Marnie
Just getting ready to start treatment on April 19 2017 .Dont know how I'm going to cope with hair loss going to take one day at a time but if any one can tell me how or where to get free or less expensive head wraps or scarves I would appreciate it .(Posted on 04/08/2017)
- Hi Marnie. We would recommend this article, which includes tips on how to save money during treatments: https://www.headcovers.com/blog/money-saving-chemotherapy-hair-loss/ (04/20/2017)
- Ms Review by Jud
I have been losing my hair for five days .. and still have a thin head of hair. Prior to and during my hair loss, my scalp was and still is very sore and miserably painful at times. Your information has been quite informative. Thank you. I will be having my second 6-hour chemo session in a few days. I purchased several head coverings once I had my first treatment from your business.(Posted on 03/28/2017)
- Mrs Review by LP
Thank you for some insight on hair loss during chemo treatments. I've just completed my 1st cycle and will soon begin losing my hair. I'm glad I found your web sight and didn't wait until my hair fell out to order my head coverings,(Posted on 03/27/2017)
- Mrs Review by Jackie
What wonderful information and beautiful products! Thank you so much!(Posted on 03/14/2017)
- Ms Review by Roxy
You made my day when my hats arrived. Thanks for allowing me to smile again!(Posted on 02/11/2017)
- Great! Review by Lanie
Thank you for this very helpful resource. I'm about to lose my hair due to chemo and this really helped me to know what I can expect. I cannot wait to receive the hats I ordered from you.(Posted on 09/09/2016)
- Mrs. Review by Ebeth
This article is comforting and provides wonderful information on choosing head coverings. I am in chemotherapy and losing my hair has been physically difficult as my scalp hurts!! Thank you for all the wonderful choices of head coverings. (Posted on 01/18/2016)
- Mrs Review by fran
Hi Just like to say thank you, I have been buying your products for the last 2-3 years and love them. Your sleeping caps are great as I have total alopecia, (Posted on 05/19/2015)
- Thank you so much for your feedback, Fran. :) (06/26/2015)
- Mrs Review by teacherB
THANK YOU!!! I love your site. I never liked anything on my head, and will admit being very vain about my long blond hair. When I started losing it, I shaved it instead, had a good cry and found your website. Now, I LOVE sleeping a bit later ( no hair drama in the morning!) and I love accessorizing with my new favorite things....head wraps.(Posted on 04/09/2015)
- Mrs Review by Sunflower
Hi I have been shopping on you site for a while now and find it fantastic for all my needs! The only problem I have is that your site and all the information seems to be focused all around cancer ( and cancer is a terrible illness ) but I have alopecia and that comes with its own problems on a daily basses. Just wanted to mention this as your site has no info on this. Thank you (Posted on 01/21/2015)
- Thank you so much for the helpful feedback. We continue to add more information to this section and will be adding articles on alopecia soon. (01/24/2015)