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One of the most distressing side effects of cancer treatment is hair loss (alopecia). The threat of hair loss can intensify the loss of control people often feel after a cancer diagnosis. For those who experience it, hair loss can be devastating in many ways.
Losing your hair can make you feel vulnerable and exposed as a “cancer patient.” You may feel self-conscious or embarrassed. And, you may be faced with questions from others that you aren’t prepared to deal with yet. Hair loss is also a tangible sign that your life has changed, which can trigger feelings of anger and depression.
These, and all the other challenges of cancer, can take a toll on your self-image and overall well-being. It helps to understand why hair loss happens, and how to handle it if it occurs.
Cancer treatment targets rapidly-dividing cancer cells. Yet, some healthy cells in the body also divide rapidly, like those lining the mouth and stomach, and in the hair follicles. When cancer treatments, like certain chemotherapies, damage the healthy, fast-growing cells responsible for hair growth, hair loss may result.
Some chemotherapy drugs that typically cause hair loss include: Adriamycin®, Taxol® and Cytoxan®. Radiation therapies can cause hair loss in the particular area of the body being treated.
Although hair loss does not always happen right away, it usually begins within two weeks of starting chemotherapy and gets worse within 1-2 months. Hair loss in the area being treated with radiation usually begins 2-3 weeks after the first treatment. Hair loss may continue throughout treatment and up to a few weeks afterward.
Hair loss can occur on the head and/or elsewhere on the body, including the face (eyelashes and eyebrows), arms, legs, underarms and pubic area.
Not every person will lose their hair during cancer treatment. Even two individuals taking the same medication can have different responses. If it does occur, the extent of hair loss varies widely depending on the type, dosage, frequency and method of treatment, as well as other individual factors.
In some situations, the hair may simply become thin, dull and dry. When hair loss occurs, hair may fall out gradually, quickly, in clumps, or entirely. Sometimes, the scalp feels tender or itchy beforehand.
Most hair loss is temporary and hair will grow back after cancer treatment is complete. Hair generally grows back 1-3 months after chemotherapy ends and 3-6 months after radiation ends. Sometimes hair re-growth begins even before therapy is complete. It’s common for hair to grow back a slightly different color and texture (e.g., curlier) at first.
When you're struggling with cancer and all the challenges that come with it, it can be difficult to adjust to changes like hair loss. Although strategies to prevent hair loss during cancer treatment are being investigated, none have proven effective. Fortunately, hair usually grows back after treatment.
Nevertheless, there are ways to prepare for and deal with hair loss when it occurs. It takes acceptance, understanding, and support from others, but you can learn how to adjust to these changes and focus on healing.
NOTE: THIS INFORMATION IS NOT INTENDED NOR IMPLIED TO BE A SUBSTITUTE FOR PROFESSIONAL MEDICAL ADVICE. ALWAYS SEEK THE ADVICE OF YOUR PHYSICIAN OR OTHER QUALIFIED HEALTHCARE PROVIDER REGARDING HAIR LOSS DURING CANCER CARE.
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