Why does treating breast cancer with chemotherapy lead to hair loss? Chemotherapy is effective because it targets fast growing cancer cells. It also affects other rapidly growing cells, such as hair follicles. Every one to three days, follicle cells divide. That makes them some of the quickest growing cells in your body. But as the chemotherapy does its job against cancer cells, it also destroys hair cells. Within a few weeks of starting chemotherapy, you may lose some or all of your hair.
Which treatment drugs are used, and for how long, determine the extent of hair shedding. Some drugs affect only hair on the head. Other drugs can also cause loss of eyebrows, eyelashes, and hair on the arms and legs.
Chemotherapy Drugs: Their Effect on Hair
- Adriamycin will cause total hair loss on the head within a few weeks of starting treatment. This drug might also trigger loss of eyelashes and eyebrows.
- Methotrexate will induce hair thinning in some people, but complete baldness is rare.
- Taxol is associated with full hair loss on the head, eyebrows, eyelashes, legs and arms.
- Cytoxan and 5-fluorouracil promote extensive hair loss for a few, but minimal loss is typical for most people.
Other breast cancer treatments that affect hair are radiation and hormonal drugs. Using radiation, hair is lost only from the body part treated. If radiation is used on your breast, the hair on your head is safe. One example of a hormonal treatment is Tamoxifen, which causes thinning only.
Hair shedding from chemotherapy can be gradual or quick and is influenced by the timing of treatments. Receiving chemotherapy in high doses every few weeks is more likely to cause hair loss than weekly treatments of smaller doses.
7 Tips for Managing Hair Loss
- Women with long hair prefer to cut it short before starting treatment. It can make the transition to thinning or baldness less of a jolt.
- If you have young children, talk to them and prepare them about your upcoming new look, and reassure them that the hair loss is temporary.
- In cold climates, wear a warm hat, and in warmer temperatures be sure to use sunscreen, if not wearing a head cover or prosthesis.
- Locate a quality hair replacement salon that specializes in custom wigs (cranial prosthesis), and a hair specialist, before chemotherapy begins. If a specialist sees your before-treatment hairstyle and texture, he or she can recommend wigs or a prosthesis that are a close match to your own hair. Your insurance may cover some of the cost. If so, have your doctor write a prescription for the cranial prosthetic.
- If you are not planning on using a wig, find some hats or wraps that suit your fashion sense.
- As hair begins to grow back after chemotherapy, it may be an unfamiliar color, texture and have more or less curl than before. Nine months to a year later, your hair should return to its normal texture.
- Consider joining a support group for your well being. In a support group you will be with others that are being treated with chemotherapy and dealing with hair loss. They can help you feel less alone.
Some doctors support their patients in trying ways of slowing down or reducing hair loss. Other physicians think this is a waste of time. Minoxidil (Rogaine) and Low Level Laser Therapy has been used to slow down loss and to promote faster re-growth with some success.
Talk to your doctor and do what is right for you. Just remember, even without taking extra measures, your hair will grow back. Meanwhile, if you are struggling with hair loss due to chemotherapy or have questions, you are invited to contact us. We are here to help.