Whether you are male or female, losing your hair during cancer treatment can be incredibly upsetting and should not be underestimated. Our hair forms a large part of our identity and many people may notice changes to their hair, making them feel more vulnerable and less confident.
You may lose all of your hair, some of your hair, or maybe none at all and hair loss can also affect your eyebrows, eyelashes and body hair. It can occur gradually, or fairly quickly in just a couple of days after treatment.
Hair loss can be caused by chemotherapy and radiotherapy which destroys rapidly growing cancer cells by disrupting their growth. This can also include the hair follicles because these cells are also rapidly growing and dividing. However, non-cancerous cells do recover, so your hair will almost always grow back when your treatment is finished. Your medical team will discuss this with you before you start your chemotherapy.
It can take between two to three weeks for your hair to start falling out from when you start chemotherapy, but this can vary from person-to-person, and depending on the treatment you have had. You may notice that when you touch your hair, brush it or wash it, it starts to fall out.
Coping with hair loss
Hair loss following treatment for blood cancer can have an effect on you emotionally. But we have information to help you cope.
Losing your hair can cause a lot of distress to anyone and can hugely affect how you feel about yourself, and how you feel others see you. Regardless of whether you are male or female, young or old, it can affect the way you feel about yourself and others.
Hair loss can make you feel less self-confident, sad or even depressed. Feeling like this is perfectly normal and there are ways of helping yourself cope better with the loss of hair.
If you are experiencing complete hair loss, there is some advice which may be helpful:
- Try to ask about wig options before you start treatment. This is so you can match the colour and texture of your real hair to make it seem more natural when you eventually switch to a wig.
- Think about having your hair cut short before your treatment starts so it doesn’t seem like such a drastic change to you if it begins to fall out.
- Some people shave their hair off completely to avoid the distress of seeing the hair fall out and to take control of their situation.
- Wear a hair net at night so you won’t wake up with hair on your pillow, which can be upsetting.
If you’re experiencing partial hair loss, there is some advice which may be helpful:
- Switch to gentle hair products such as baby shampoos and don’t scrub your scalp too hard as this could cause more hair to fall out and damage your scalp.
- Don’t perm or colour thinning hair as the colours may not take well and perms can damage the hair.
- Use a soft baby brush and comb thinning hair gently to avoid a rougher brush from tugging and pulling hair out.
- Try to pat your hair dry and avoid using hair dryers, curling tongs and curlers on thinning hair as this can damage thin hair.
- Hair loss may cause your scalp to flake or itch so you should try using an oil or moisturiser to keep the scalp hydrated.
Wigs and headwear
Wigs and other headwear can help to improve your confidence during and after hair loss. There are many options available to suit your needs.
The idea of wearing a wig may worry some people as they imagine them to look quite unnatural. However, this is no longer something that patients have to worry about as wig-making techniques have become more sophisticated so they look much more natural and can match your original hairstyle more easily.
The NHS makes provision for the supply of wigs to people who need them in order to help cope with medical hair loss. Choosing a wig can be daunting especially when faced with the prospect of losing your hair, but it is good to consider whether you want to go with a wig similar to your current hair or perhaps go with a different style or even colour. It may help to take someone with you when choosing a wig and even practicing wearing your wig in your own home, so that you get used to how it feels on your head in preparation of wearing it out.
There are two main wig options to consider:
- Synthetic fibre wigs are pre-styled and available in a range of colours. When they are washed correctly they return to their original style so don’t need to be restyled every day, and the colour is less likely to fade meaning they are easier to look after. They can last from 9-12 months, but this can depend on the length, as longer styles may result in ‘friction frizz’ from clothing.
- Human hair wigs can be heat styled to exactly how you like it. This means they require more attention just like your normal hair would and the colour can fade. They do not frizz like synthetic wigs, but can be more difficult and require more time to manage.
Some people may decide to use a hat or headscarf instead of a wig. These can include regular hats and scarves. People may choose this option, as it offers flexibility in terms of changing the headwear dependent on the temperature, your environment and even your clothing. Whereas some wigs can become hot and cause a rash on your head if they rub.
Going without a replacement
Some people decide not to use wigs and instead decide to use bigger and bolder make-up and jewellery as their prominent feature instead of their hair. However, if you opt for this option you have to be careful when going outside as the skin on your scalp can be very sensitive, especially in the sunlight. So you should take precautions to protect yourself if you choose not to opt for a wig or alternative headwear, for example, wearing sun cream and moisturising your scalp.By moisturising your scalp frequently stops it from becoming dry and itchy.
You could also try wearing a scarf at night as we lose a lot of heat from our head so this often stops people waking up at night feeling cold.