Hair loss is one of the first things to go through someone’s mind when they know they have to undergo chemotherapy. It’s devastating because hair loss is usually inevitable, robbing you of your identity while battling for your health. Racoon’s consultant top trichologist, Iain Sallis, explains:
HAIR LOSS AND CHEMOTHERAPY
WHY DOES IT MAKE HAIR FALL OUT?
Chemotherapy is designed to attack the tumour within your body. It is an Anti-mitotic which means it attacks fast dividing cells in your body… the tumour being an out-of-control cluster of rapidly dividing cells. Hair just happens to be the second-fastest dividing cell in the body (bone marrow being the first) and this is the main reason why most chemotherapy drugs attack the hair. The chemo stops the cells dividing in the hair bulb, which results in the hair stopping growing and it can fall out very suddenly. This is called Anagen effluvium and it affects all of the living hairs on your body – eyelashes, nasal and pubic hair included.
DOES THE HAIR ALWAYS FALL OUT?
In most cases, yes. In a small minority it sheds over a period of time and for some lucky people it affects the hair very little. Certain chemotherapies will cause the hair to fall and some won’t so the best person to ask is your support team of doctors, nurses and specialists who deal with the medication daily.
IS THERE ANYTHING I CAN DO TO STOP HAIR FALLING OUT?
Usually, no. There are some methods such as the ‘cold cap’ which is used during chemo delivery in the hope of reducing hair loss. The cold narrows the blood vessels and prevents the drug passing into your hair root. Less damage is caused as the amount of chemo-drug into the scalp is reduced, lessening the exposure of hair follicles to cytotoxics (the stuff that kills cells). The success rate is getting better all the time although wearing a cold cap can be uncomfortable as it essentially slows blood flow to the scalp, thus reducing the temperature of the scalp.
Research shows scalp cooling can prevent hair loss with three specific drugs: doxorubicin, epirubicin and taxol. Even then, success depends on the dose of drug and whether other drugs are given at the same time. Your doctor will tell you if scalp cooling can be used with your chemotherapy. You can then decide whether or not to try it. A doctor or nurse will explain the procedure before you begin treatment.
HAIR LOSS AND RADIOTHERAPY
Radiotherapy causes hair loss in a different way to chemotherapy and only affects the specific area being treated. For example, if radiotherapy is given to the breast or chest, only chest and underarm hair will be lost; if your head is being treated, only head hair will come out. Specific radio waves are emitted in a beam over a specific area and this ‘kills off’ the growing hairs in that specifically targeted area. Other hair is unaffected. Although hair loss is usually temporary, for a few people it can be permanent. It depends on the dose of radiotherapy and the length of treatment. If your hair loss is likely to be permanent, this will be explained to you before treatment begins.
FINALLY – OTHER THINGS TO BE AWARE OF
Thinning hair after chemotherapy is common and is usually due to the prescribed medication you are on – and may have to stay on for a period of time – as part of your treatment. Again, your hair condition will usually get better after you stop the medication.
Chemo can have a big effect on the body’s systems, so it is important to make sure you are not suffering from any underlying conditions at the end of your treatment. You will need a health check a few months after your final bout of chemotherapy to check for problems such as anaemia, pernicious anaemia and any hormone problems.
These ailments may have been induced by your treatment and may indirectly cause thinning hair and prevent it from coming back like it was before. Your doctor or a qualified trichologist will be able to help you discover if you are suffering from any of these ailments which may be preventing your hair returning properly.