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Hair loss during cancer treatment

  • Hair loss occurs as a result of chemotherapy or radiation treatment for your cancer. The medical name for your hair loss is alopecia (al-o-pee-sha). This will help you to understand your hair loss and deal with this distressing side effect.

    Why will I have hair loss?

    Chemotherapy and radiation kill fast-growing cancer cells. However, these treatments also affect normal cells that are fast growing, such as hair.

    Does everyone who receives cancer treatment lose hair?

    No. Many, but not all, chemotherapy drugs cause hair loss. Radiation affects only the area being treated.

    Will I lose all of my body hair?

    You may, depending on the chemotherapy drug that is used. Most of the time, patients only lose the hair on the head.

    Less often, the treatment can cause some loss of hair on eyebrows, eyelashes, chest, underarms, groin, and legs. Hair loss usually begins within two weeks of the start of therapy. It may take place slowly, over a period of days to weeks.

    Will my hair ever grow back?

    Yes. Hair regrowth often begins three to four weeks after treatment is completed. Some patients notice regrowth during treatment. It may even be a different color or texture. Grey hair may grow back as your original hair color. Straight or thin hair may return as curly, thick hair. It will be soft, new hair, unexposed to years of sunlight, shampoos and permanent dyes.

    What can I do to care for my head or cover my hair loss?

    • If your hair is long, you may want to have it cut short before you begin treatment.
    • Use baby shampoo or other mild, protein-based shampoo and conditioner.
    • Wash hair very gently but thoroughly.
    • Brush hair gently with a soft-bristle brush or comb.
    • Use a satin or silk pillowcase to decrease hair friction and tangles.
    • Select a wig before you lose your hair. Very often, your insurance will cover some or all of the cost.
    • Look for attractive hats, caps, scarves or turbans.
    • Use makeup to accent other features. Use eyebrow pencil, or even try fake eyelashes.
    • Remember sunscreen. Use an SPF of at least 15. Don’t expose your scalp to the sun.
    • Hold onto your body heat by using warm hats and scarves.

    What should I avoid?

    • Daily hair washing
    • Electric hair dryers, curling irons, curlers, clips, rubber bands, and barrettes
    • Braids, corn rows and ponytails
    • Hair products that are drying: hairsprays, spritz, etc.
    • Hair treatments that contain harsh chemicals such as bleach, peroxide and ammonia

    What should I do before buying a wig or hairpiece?

    Ask questions. Shop. Many insurances cover wig costs. For this, you need a doctor’s prescription. The prescription must clearly state hair prosthesis secondary to alopecia.

    Dana-Farber's Friends' Place offers wig-fitting services. The friendly, compassionate staff can help with your questions about hair loss and hair alternatives during cancer treatment.

  • Chemotherapy
  • Coping with Cancer
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