As featured on RETHINK breast cancers blog:
Your Questions Answered about Hair Loss from Breast Cancer: Part 1
You are diagnosed, treatments are starting almost immediately. And then you are told you are likely going to lose your hair. Why is it that for most women losing their hair as a result of cancer treatment is the most distressing side effect? According to a recent survey, when given a choice between great hair forever or 10 more IQ points, 57% of women chose the former. (Oprah Magazine, Nov 2013) When the First Lady of the United States got bangs, more than 1.6 million people googled her new ‘do’. Its true, in a day and age when we are faced with non-stop visibility thanks to public social media forums, the pressure to ‘look good’ has never been higher. There is no doubt that for most women hair is their ‘crowning glory’. The way we feel about ourselves is closely linked to the way we look, and so losing our hair can be devastating. When a woman loses her hair she can feel vulnerable, exposed, unattractive, and often: angry. All these feelings are completely normal. It takes time to adjust to this change, but with the right resources and support losing your hair can be a much easier transition than you thought. Here are some steps to help you get through this unpleasant time and back on the road of being hair happy again.
Step 1: To tell or not to tell?
It’s up to you who you will tell about losing your hair. Some people tell their family and close friends, while others are happy to let everyone know. Of course if you choose to wear scarves or not to cover your head; your hair loss may be more obvious, while if you choose to wear a wig that looks like your own hair many people may not notice that you’ve lost your hair. People will respond to you losing your hair in different ways, and you may find some reactions difficult to deal with. If people don’t know what to say it may help to put them at their ease if you bring the subject up first. You need to be prepared for the possibility that not everyone will be as supportive as you’d like, and that can be hurtful. But lots of people will react well, so try not to withdraw from your friends or your social life. Everyone will find their own way of dealing with hair loss, but you may find it helps to talk to others who have been through the same experience.
Step 2: Get the answers and the right solutions.
a) Why does CHEMO cause hair loss?
Chemo therapy uses anti-cancer drugs to destroy cancer cells, but in the process these drugs also damage healthy cells, including the cells in hair follicles, which is why hair usually starts falling out about 10 -15 days after your first treatment. Because healthy cells repair themselves quickly, your hair will eventually grow back after treatments are finished.
b) Does losing your hair hurt?
This is a question that comes up sometimes and the best way to describe the feeling of your hair falling out is to compare it to having your hair up all day. If you
are familiar with the feeling of tension that comes with taking your hair out of a pony tail or an up-do, that’s very close to what you will feel when you start to lose your hair. What many people are not aware of is the sensitivity in your scalp that accompanies treatment. Your scalp may feel dry, tender and even itchy. Its important to use products that are going to soothe and treat. Your regular drugstore shampoo has lots of additives like sulphates and parabens…which not only irritate the scalp but are also bad for your health!
There are things that you can do to help with the hair loss:
- Continue to wash your hair gently and allow the hair to do what it needs to do – shed.
- Ask your hair solution centre where you purchased your wig if they offer a transitional hair cut. Here the hair is cut down to a quarter of an inch to ensure a comfortable transition into a wig or head covering.
- Have your wig that you chose fitted and styled to your preference
- If you decide not to cover your head, remember to use a high protection factor sun cream at all times, as the scalp is particularly sensitive.
- You may find your scalp dry, flaky or itchy. Be sure to keep the scalp hydrated , reduce irritation and sensitivity that comes with sudden hair loss. Use products that are either prescribed by a Trichologist (a hair and scalp specialist), or that are recommended by your hair loss clinic.
- Be open to looking at head coverings such as turbans, hats and scarves.
- Your scalp may feel cold, even at home. You will want to wear something soft and comfortable to sleep in or as an alternative to wearing your wig.
c) Can I lose my hair from Cranial Radiotherapy?
Cranial Radiotherapy uses high energy x-rays to treat cancer. Like chemotherapy, it also affects healthy cells, but only in the specific area being treated. This means that you will only lose the hair from that area. For example, if someone is having radiotherapy to the head, the client will see the most significant hair loss in that area.
- After cranial radiotherapy hair will usually grow back. Its possible that the re-growth may be patchy, and it can take up to six to twelve months to grow back completely. Patience is key here!
- Unfortunately it is also a possibility that the hair may not grow back at all or it may be very thin. This will depend on the dose of radiotherapy and the number of treatments someone has.
- Feel free to continue to look after your hair with cut, colours and highlights. Use Shampoos that are hydrating and formulated for your type of hair and scalp.
d) What about Anti-Estrogen Drugs?
For women with hormonal receptor positive breast cancer, the oncologist may prescribe an anti-estrogen drug for 5 years. These drugs can be tamoxifen, Arimidex, Femara to name a few. What many women don’t know about these drugs is that one of the most common side effects is thinning hair – behaving as Hormonal Hair Loss. Hormonal hair loss can be treated with stimulating at home and in clinic treatments to help it grow back faster, and to minimize loss. If colouring hair, women should definitely request colour that is PPD (Paraphenylenediamine) free. Once the drugs stop , hair will return to the same state it was prior to treatments.
e) Wigs: the do’s and don’ts
Today’s wigs have come a long way, just like any anti aging product and solution, wigs have made revolutionary changes in the way they look, feel and fit. The best time to look for wigs is before you start your treatments. The Hair Solution Centre you choose will be able to choose a style that looks just like your own hair but maybe just that little bit better.
- Find a wig that looks like your hair in colour texture and style. A good idea is to come to your first appointment prepared with either a picture of what your hair used to look like (if your hair has thinned, or changed drastically), or come with a couple trusted family or friends, people that you know will be supportive and honest.
- You can choose from synthetic, blends, human hair and European hair.
- Make sure the centre you choose works with your budget and lifestyle, as well as spends time explaining your wigs specific care and needs.
- A good quality wig should feel lightweight, comfortable and secure
- Modern wigs come in beautiful colours with low lights, highlights, different grey tones and rooted colours.
- Don’t buy a wig online. At least not unless its from a known and trusted source. Wigs fit everyone differently. Remember you are not wearing hair on top of hair, it has to sit securely on your scalp. Keep in mind you want this process to be as seamless and stress free as possible. This is not a time to worrying about returns/ exchanges/ or not getting what you paid for. For more information go here: http://www.trulyyou.ca/internet-scams-exposed-and-we-have-proof
- Dont bring too many people to your appointment (s). It can be overwhelming with too many opinions.
- Don’t rule anything out (wig/ head covering or otherwise) You may surprise yourself, and actually like having a hassle free hair style, or comfortable alternative.
- Don’t use drugstore products on your wig or scalp. These can seriously damage your new hair, and irritate your scalp.
Don’t go near high heat with synthetic wigs!. Opening oven doors, bbq’s can seriously damage the fibres.