Turn on your television or computer, and you’ll quickly watch a barrage of messages about how hair and beauty are intertwined. What, then, should women think, feel and do when life-sustaining cancer treatments cause them to lose their hair?
American Cancer Society representative Patti Ramos works closely with communities, patients and family members as they face difficult cancer diagnoses. She gave us her thoughts on how to approach hair care, wigs and headpieces as hair changes and often falls out during chemo and radiation. You can find out more by visiting Look Good Feel Better for additional support, information and local workshops.
The majority of cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy end up losing some or all of their hair. But hair doesn’t fall out all at once. Instead, hair loss is somewhat gradual and tends to come out in clumps. Ramos says, “If you’re able, it’s important to visit a stylist who has worked with other cancer patients, because sometimes a woman’s hair will only thin. If it just thins or comes out in clumps rather than falls out completely, a woman will need to learn new ways to style her hair.”
The American Cancer Society recommends the following:
- Use gentle shampoos and conditioners
- Avoid irritating ingredients like salicylic acid, menthol, camphor, eucalyptus and henna
- Don’t use blow dryers, curling irons or rollers
- Postpone color treatments, perms and straightening treatments until cleared by your doctor
Finding the right wig
It’s not every day that a woman has to find a wig. As such, cancer patients sometimes feel lost when it comes to finding a wig that fits and looks natural. But you don’t have to navigate the decision on your own. You can call the American Cancer Society at 1-800-ACS-2345 for referrals to wig shops and experts who can help with fitting, and they can also provide financial assistance if you’re qualified for help. Ramos also says it’s a good idea to:
- Bring a friend to the fitting to calm your nerves
- Look for a lighter wig color than your natural hair color, as lighter colors can offset some of the skin dullness and darkening that can occur during chemotherapy
- Opt for a shorter style, since it’s easier to maintain and detangle short wigs
Using headpieces and scarves
As Ramos says, “Wigs are a great option for hair loss but they’re not the only option. Scarves, turbans, hats and head coverings are fabulous to work with, too.” Consider the following options that are available to you, with instructional guides available on the Look Good Feel Better website:
- Turbans are a quick and easy choice if you are in a rush, and they’re inexpensive so you can own many styles.
- Scarves, unlike turbans, allow wearers to play with a variety of styling techniques. A woman can loop a scarf into bows, bundle the knots or coil the ends of the scarf for different looks.
- Hats are available off the rack at many clothing stores, or you can opt for hats for cancer patients, which often have bangs or hairpieces sewn in.
One woman’s story: Hospital chaplain Karen
Maybe you’re not yet convinced that hair loss is a surmountable problem, both emotionally and physically. We spoke with a hospital chaplain named Karen to get her take on hair loss during cancer. Karen’s life vocation is to provide spiritual and emotional care and guidance to patients and families during their darkest hours of hospital treatment. Then one day, Karen was diagnosed with cancer herself.
Karen says, “Chemotherapy made me lose my hair, but frankly, I was surprised that I looked OK without hair. And I was surprised by the kindness of others because they could see that I didn’t have hair and that I was going through cancer treatments.”
“If I could tell women anything at the beginning of this process, I would tell them that confidence is about the inner work of being comfortable in your own skin. Try to be healthy, learn to put your makeup on, and learn to tie your headscarves. But remember that facing the world without hair is just like how it felt to walk into kindergarten for the first time, or the scary feeling of walking into your freshman year of high school as a young woman. We go through these radical treatments so we can live. And it’s worth it.”
For more information on American Cancer Society’s Look Good Feel Better events in your area, or for step-by-step instructions on how to tie headscarves, visit the ACS website or call 1-800-ACS-2345.