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  5. Chemotherapy Hair Loss: Science, Timeline & Ways To Control

Most of us associate cancer with hair loss. Did you know it’s the medication that causes the body to lose hair and not the condition itself?

If you or your dear ones have been recommended a chemotherapy treatment, here is all you need to know about one of its well-known side-effects - hair loss.

Why Does Chemotherapy Cause Hair Loss?

Medicines used for chemotherapy actively target the rapidly growing cells in the skin that cause cancer. As a result, the frequently growing hair follicles also become a target.

Since it is not in the medicine's capacity to differentiate between these cells, it kills all the cells, including the ones that are used by the body to grow hair.

This is why a lot of patients experience alopecia during chemotherapy. It usually starts within 1-2 weeks of treatment.

Do All Chemo Patients Experience Hair Loss?

The degree at which you may experience hair loss depends on a number of factors (1) :

  • The dosage of the medication.
  • Frequency at which chemotherapy is given.
  • Intravenous drugs are more likely to result in hair loss.
  • Certain medicines used in combination can result in alopecia.
  • Genes or your individual genetic makeup - some patients are not as prone to losing hair while others may experience major hair loss.

Chemo Hair Fall Timeline

Patients undergoing a chemotherapy treatment will notice different levels of hair loss depending on the pattern of medication, dosage and type of cancer.

  • A lot of patients experience hair fall within the first 1 or 2 weeks of treatment itself.
  • Hair loss usually tends to begin from the side of the ears and top of the head. However, it varies for each individual.
  • By about 3 months, complete balding may occur.
  • Patients tend to notice their hair regrowing after 1 to 3 months. A change in hair color and texture may be evident but are usually not permanent.
  • 60 percent of patients have reported a change in their color and hair type.

Did You Know?

  • About 65 percent of patients undergoing chemotherapy experience alopecia (hair fall). (2)

How Can You Prevent Hair Fall During Chemotherapy?

Though complete prevention of hair loss after chemotherapy is not possible, the following may help restrict your hair fall to a certain degree:

1. Cooling Caps

These slow-down the blood flow to your scalp, thereby slowing down the attack of the chemo medicines on your hair follicles. Research suggests that these caps usually work on most patients.

Side-Effects

  • Small risk of recurring cancer on your scalp
  • Headaches
  • Patients may feel very cold during this procedure

2. Minoxidil

Minoxidil is a medicine that is topically applied to the scalp and is used to treat androgenetic alopecia in men and women. It has been proved to be a safe and effective option to help regrow hair. However, there is not enough evidence to prove this yet.

3. Be Gentle

Continue your hair care regimen during your chemotherapy treatment. Wash it as often as required, condition it and take care of it in general, in order to maintain its health.

4. Wear Sunscreen Or A Hat When You Go Out

Treatment can make your scalp sensitive and exposing it to extreme temperatures may irritate it. Wear sunscreen to protect your scalp from UV damage and a hat to avoid feeling cold.

Hair-Care Before Chemotherapy

Preventing hair fall due to chemotherapy is not possible. However, you can manage it by following these hair care tips:

1. Avoid Chemically Treating It

Chemical treatments like straightening or coloring can damage your hair and cause it to break. Avoid using any hair products that produce heat. Heat strips away essential oils and moisture from your hair that results in breakage.

2. Cut Your Hair

Cutting your hair till your shoulder-length or above will minimize the trauma of having it fall off during chemo.

3. Consider Getting A Head Cover

A scarf, a wig or any other head covers may help you overcome the trauma of losing your hair. Apart from that, you even get to experiment with so many styles!

4. You Can Even Shave Your Head

If you feel like your head feels too itchy or you’re experiencing hair fall at a very fast pace, consider shaving off your head. This will make you feel lighter and relieve you of feeling itchy.

Post-Chemo Hair-Care

Follow a hair care regimen. The hair that grows post-chemo is going to be vulnerable to breakage for sometime. Avoid scrubbing or using products that produce heat. Follow a hair care regimen and try to be gentle with your hair. Avoid any other treatments like straightening or coloring.

Which Chemotherapy Drugs Cause Hair Loss?

The following drugs cause hair loss during chemotherapy:

Alkylating agents

These medicines are used to kill lung cancer cells. They interfere with DNA and inhibit their growth, thereby preventing the rapid growth and division of cancer cells (3).

  • Cytoxan or Neosar (cyclophosphamide)
  • Ifex (ifosfamide)
  • Myleran or Busulfex (busulphan)
  • Thioplex (thiotepa)
  • Hexalen (altretamine)
  • Paraplatin (carboplatin)

 

Antitumor antibiotics

These are used during chemo treatments and are made from natural products. They interfere with different phases of the cell cycle that help prevent and regulate the growth of cancer cells. These are also known to decrease the recurrence rate in bladder cancer (4).

  • Cosmegen (dactinomycin)
  • Adriamycin or Doxil (doxorubicin)
  • Idamycin (idarubicin)

 

Topoisomerase inhibitors

These medicines help block Topoisomerases (enzymes that create changes in DNA structures, thereby helping cancer cells to rapidly grow) (5).

  • VePesid (etoposide)
  • Camptosar (irinotecan)

 

Antimicrotubule agents

These medicines are derived from plants. They block the proliferation of cancer cells (6).

  • Taxol (paclitaxel)
  • Taxotere (docetaxel)
  • Ellence (epirubicin)
  • Ixempra (Ixabepilone)
  • Marqibo or Vincasar (vincristine)
  • Alocrest or Navelbine (vinorelbine)

 

Antimetabolites

These medicines interfere with and replicate molecules that contribute to growth of cancer cells in the body (7). They were among the first medicines to help treat cancer.

  • Efudex (fluorouracil)
  • Gemzar (gemcitabine)

 

When Will My Hair Grow Back After Chemotherapy?

Typically, you won’t see hair regrowth right after chemotherapy. It takes some time for the medicines you have consumed during chemotherapy to completely leave your body. 2 to 3 weeks after the procedure, you may notice new hair strands (8).

You may even notice that the hair growth rate on your head is faster than the rest of your body. New hair may be slightly different in texture and type as compared to your original hair type. However, this is usually temporary. You may even notice a change in your hair color.

Does Chemotherapy Result In Permanent Hair Loss?

Patients usually don’t experience permanent hair loss. However, in severe cases, depending on the dosage and medication prescribed, some people may experience permanent hair loss.

Radiation Therapy And Hair Loss

Radiation therapy uses high energy waves to target rapidly dividing cells. This form of treatment in cancer patients is concentrated on areas where the tumor has developed.

Radiation therapy also targets rapidly growing cells that can result in hair loss. However, your hair fall is specific to the area that is undergoing treatment.

Hair may or may not grow back, depending on the dosage and intensity of the therapy. High dosage may cause permanent hair loss.

Wrapping Up

Though chemotherapy may cause hair loss in most people, the good news is that it is not permanent. In most cases, hair grows back on the scalp with the right care and treatments. The most important aspect of chemotherapy is to not lose hope and fight your cancer like a warrior.

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