After male/female pattern hair loss, cancer is a very well-known reason for hair loss. But is it really? What people think they know about cancer and hair loss isn’t always based on facts, and there’s much the average person doesn’t know but should. So, let’s start unraveling the myths and filling in those gaps.
Does Cancer Cause Hair Loss?
Cancer in and of itself does not cause hair loss. Cancer treatment is the culprit. Alopecia, also known as hair loss, is a common side effect of chemotherapy and radiation treatments used to fight cancer, so people commonly associate hair loss with cancer.
Why Does Chemotherapy and Radiation Cause Hair Loss?
Cancer cells grow rapidly. Both chemotherapy and radiation target fast-growing cells, which can, unfortunately, also include hair follicles. Whether radiation can lead to long-term hair loss depends upon the length of the radiation treatments and how it combines with other treatments. So, generally, radiation-related hair loss is temporary and hair regrows in three to six months after the final treatment but it can be permanent in some cases.
Radiation treatments can also make the scalp pink, sensitive or inflamed. Protecting the scalp and giving it tender care is important. Don’t scratch it, and ask your doctor about cream for dryness and itchiness.
Chemotherapy-induced alopecia (CIA) varies according to the type of cancer and the exact combination of chemotherapy drugs used to treat it. Parts of the scalp that have high levels of friction while sleeping, such as the side of the head above the ears, are prone to hair loss first. Hair typically regrows 3 to 10 months after the last treatment.
What Chemotherapy Drugs Cause Hair Loss?
A wide range of chemotherapy drugs can cause hair loss. Chemotherapy drugs are also often used in combination. Interaction between chemotherapy and radiation treatments can also cause hair loss. It is always best and important to talk to your doctor about your specific treatment plan.
Certain Chemotherapy Drugs Are More Prone to Causing Hair Loss, Including:
- Altretamine (Hexalen)
- Carboplatin (Paraplatin)
- Cisplatin (Platinol)
- Cyclophosphamide (Neosar)
- Docetaxel (Taxotere)
- Doxorubicin (Adriamycin, Doxil)
- Epirubicin (Ellence)
- Fluorouracil (5-FU)
- Gemcitabine (Gemzar)
- Idarubicin (Idamycin)
- Ifosfamide (Ifex)
- Paclitaxel (multiple brand names)
- Vincristine (Marqibo, Vincasar)
- Vinorelbine (Alocrest, Navelbine)
Does Cancer-Related Hair Loss Only Affect the Head?
With some forms of cancer treatment, only hair on the scalp is lost. With others, all body hair can be lost including eyebrows, eyelashes, nose hair, and beards. Talk to your doctor about the type of hair loss to expect from your specific form of treatment. Men might be told to shorten their beards or shave completely to simplify things for certain types of cancer treatment.
Do All Cancer Patients Lose Their Hair?
No, not all cancer patients lose their hair. Radiation treatments typically only cause hair loss where the treatment occurs. With more than 100 chemotherapy medications on the market, often used in combinations, whether they trigger hair loss varies. That said some people just maintain their hair regardless of the treatment they undergo.
Can I Prevent Hair Loss from Cancer?
No method is foolproof but certain things can improve your chances of maintaining your hair during cancer treatment. One option is scalp hypothermia using a scalp cooling cap during chemotherapy treatments. The cap is cooled by a liquid which, in turn, slows blood flow to the scalp during the chemotherapy treatment. That tends to lower the risk of hair loss because that area gets a lower dose of chemotherapy. However, it can also make chemotherapy less effective for some cancers. Talk to your doctor about the risks and whether it’s a viable option for your particular case.
Protecting your hair and scalp during cancer treatment includes:
- Patting your hair dry instead of rubbing vigorously
- Washing hair gently and only every other day at most
- Using fragrance-free shampoos, especially those labeled “gentle”
- Use only wide-toothed combs and soft hairbrushes
- Use sunscreen, hats or scarves to protect your scalp if you lose hair
- Cover your head when it’s cold
- Avoid heat tools and blow dryers
- Skip dyeing, straightening or curling your hair during treatments
- Consider a shorter hairstyle during treatment
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