Hair Loss From Cancer Treatment

Topic Overview

Hair loss can be emotionally distressing. Not all chemotherapy medicines cause hair loss, and some people have only mild thinning that is noticeable only to them. Your doctor will be able to tell you whether hair loss is an expected side effect with the medicines you will receive. If you do lose hair, it will almost always grow back after the treatments are over. But it might be a different color or texture.

Hair loss can occur on all parts of the body, not just the head. Facial hair, arm and leg hair, underarm hair, and pubic hair all may be affected.

Hair loss usually doesn't occur right away. More often, it will begin falling out within a few weeks of treatment. Your hair may fall out gradually or in clumps. The hair that remains may be very dry or brittle.

During chemotherapy, your hair and scalp need special care.

  • Use a mild shampoo and a soft hair brush.
  • Try to air-dry your hair. If you have to use a hair dryer, use the low-heat setting.
  • If you expect hair-thinning or hair loss, consider having your hair cut short. A shorter style will make your hair look thicker and fuller. It also will make hair loss easier to manage if it occurs.
  • Sleep on a satin pillowcase.
  • Do not use brush rollers to set your hair.
  • Do not dye your hair or get a permanent while you are taking chemotherapy.
  • Use a sunscreen, sunblock, hat, scarf, or wig to protect your scalp from the sun.

You may feel more comfortable leaving your head uncovered. Or you may decide to wear turbans, scarves, caps, wigs, or hairpieces. You may choose to switch back and forth, depending on whether you are in public or at home with friends and family members.

Here are some tips to help you choose a wig or hairpiece:

  • Shop for your wig or hairpiece before you lose a lot of hair so you can match your natural color, texture, and style. You may be able to buy a wig or hairpiece at a specialty shop just for cancer patients. Often a salesperson will come to your home to help you. You also can buy a wig or hairpiece through the American Cancer Society's catalog. Call the American Cancer Society for more information, 1-800-ACS-2345 (1-800-227-2345) or 1-866-228-4327 (for TTY).
  • You may prefer to borrow rather than buy a wig or hairpiece. If so, call your local American Cancer Society or check with the social work department at your treatment center.
  • Remember that a hairpiece needed because of cancer treatment is a tax-deductible expense and may be at least partially covered by your health insurance. Be sure to check your policy, and ask your doctor to write a prescription for a "hair prosthesis."

Credits

Author Bets Davis, MFA
Editor Susan Van Houten, RN, BSN, MBA
Associate Editor Pat Truman, MATC
Primary Medical Reviewer E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Michael S. Rabin, MD - Medical Oncology
Last Updated October 30, 2009

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