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Survival beauty: Don't fear hair loss

Experts answer your fears

Women think hair is the mecca of femininity — we’ve hid behind it when nervous on a first date, drastically colored it after a breakup and put it up in a bun for our wedding. But without it, we’re even stronger.
sad woman brushing hair

When a woman finds out her hair has to go, her mind is flooded with questions and concerns on her hair future. SheKnows and their circle of experts want to make it easier for you to handle this side effect of cancer treatment. Hair Club Medical Group transplant physician Jeff Donovan and stylist Donald Arditi answer common questions you may have:

Do all cancer treatments cause hair loss? Why?

As most people know, many traditional cancer treatments, namely chemotherapy and radiation therapy, have the potential to cause hair loss. That’s because chemotherapy targets actively growing cells in the body — cancer cells and other cells, including hair follicles.

How many patients experience hair loss as a result?

Overall, about 65 percent of patients receiving chemotherapy experience some level of hair loss. While not all chemotherapy drugs cause hair loss, the likelihood is greater among patients receiving two or more drugs versus those receiving only a single drug. It all depends on the type of treatment and amount of chemotherapy or radiation used.

Is hair loss due to cancer treatment always temporary or is it sometimes permanent?

Hair loss after chemotherapy typically begins within one to three weeks and is complete within one to two months. The hair grows back usually within four months. In rare situations, patients may not fully regain the same hair density as they had before cancer treatment. This phenomenon is known as permanent chemotherapy induced alopecia (PCIA). Certain drugs and treatments are more likely to cause PCIA than others. For instance, radiation to the brain has been known to sometimes cause permanent loss.

Does the hair grow back differently?

The new, re-growing hair may be a different texture and may even be a different color (especially gray). It’s not uncommon for the hair to be curlier than it was before chemotherapy. Most of the time, however, the hair returns to its normal texture and color.

Is there anything one can do to prevent or counter the hair loss?

Cryotherapy or scalp cooling can sometimes be used to reduce the chance of developing hair loss. Scalp cooling is not used for all patients undergoing chemotherapy, but rather for patients receiving specific medications or fighting specific cancers. Topical minoxidil can also reduce the total number of weeks that a patient will experience hair loss after chemotherapy and will speed up the rate of hair growth following cancer therapies.

Aside from medical treatments, what are some easy ways to disguise and care for thinning hair?

Be gentle. Dry your hair with your hands and fingers, minimize using high heat settings on the blow dryer, and avoid using a brush when blow drying. Use a diffuser instead to create fullness when drying. The less tension you put on your hair, the less risk of premature breakage or damage.

What products are best for thinning hair?

Minimize the use of waxes, gels, creams and pastes. A lot of these products will weigh your hair down, making it oily and revealing thin areas. A light styling product that creates volume in the hair, like a volumizing mousse, is best. Volumizing shampoos and conditioners are also highly recommended. To keep hair strong and clear of buildup, one may opt for a clarifying shampoo and protein treatment, but only once a week at most.

What should stylists know?

First, inform any stylists ahead of time about your health situation and treatment, so they can be proactive and start handling your hair with precautionary measures as early as possible. Avoid chemical services, such as permanent color treatments, perms and straighteners, which can lead to premature breakage and hair loss. Request gentle, alcohol-free cleansers and conditioners, and opt for air drying instead of high-heat dryers. In terms of your cut, a shorter style tends to make hair look thicker and fuller.

More answers on breast cancer

How is breast cancer diagnosed?
Diet changes that promote better health
Breast cancer survivor stories

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