Our hair is a unique part of our identity. Suddenly losing it as a result of cancer treatment can be distressing for both men and women.
“Appearance-related concerns are normal and to be expected throughout the cancer experience,” says Memorial Sloan Kettering social worker Carrie Panzer. “Understanding this can be a key component in how you cope, now and even years into survivorship.”
Ms. Panzer, who helps people with cancer manage the emotional impact of their diagnosis and treatment, offers the following tips for coping with hair loss.
Know What to Expect
If you haven’t yet started your treatment, ask your oncologist whether it is known to cause hair loss, and if so, how quickly that will happen.
Certain types of chemotherapy and bone marrow transplant can cause you to lose the hair on your head as well as on other areas of your body. Long-term use of some targeted therapies and hormonal therapies may lead to hair thinning, bald patches, or complete hair loss. Radiation therapy can cause hair loss at the site being treated.
There are no proven methods that can prevent hair loss. “However, patient feedback has shown that treating your scalp gently, using mild hair-care products and a soft-bristle brush, and sleeping on a satin pillowcase can help reduce the amount of hair you lose and protect what remains,” says Ms. Panzer.
Take Back Some Control
Being proactive before you lose your hair may make it less upsetting and improve your self confidence.
Get a shorter haircut before you start treatment — it will make your hair look thicker and may help hair loss seem less noticeable to others later on. You may even want to consider a close crop. Many find it less traumatic to shave their hair prior to chemotherapy than to watch it fall out in clumps.
If you plan to wear a wig, try to get fitted for one before you experience any hair loss. You may select a wig that looks as similar to your hair as possible or decide on a different hairstyle or color.
Anticipating questions from family, friends, and coworkers who may ask you about your hair loss can help, too. Some may not bring it up at all, which can also be awkward. “Acknowledging the fact that you are losing your hair due to medical treatment can feel empowering,” explains Ms. Panzer. “However, if you are uncomfortable answering questions, give a simple response that creates boundaries and people will follow your lead: ‘This is a tough subject for me to talk about. I will let you know if and when I’m ready to do so.’”
Learn What Worked for Others
Hair loss can lead to isolation, especially when you don’t know anyone else in your peer group going through the same experience. Getting perspective and coping strategies from people who have walked in your shoes is comforting because they understand the impact of cancer in a way that others don’t.
Participate in a support group. “It can be validating to know that the emotions you are having are normal,” says Ms. Panzer. “Meeting other people whose hair is growing back after completing treatment is a reminder that you can get through this, too.”
Memorial Sloan Kettering offers in-person and online support groups where our patients can discuss their concerns, as well as a Patient-to-Patient Support Program that provides an opportunity to speak with cancer survivors who have had a similar diagnosis and treatment. Sharing your experience and asking for advice in an online community like Connections can also be beneficial.
Use Available Resources
Look Good, Feel Better offers complimentary workshops and online videos to help men and women manage appearance-related side effects of cancer treatment. Professional beauty experts offer techniques — such as ways to re-create the look of eyebrows or select and style a wig — to help you look your best and boost your self-esteem.
Many insurance providers will cover the cost of a wig if your oncologist writes a prescription for a “full cranial prosthesis.” Some organizations such as the American Cancer Society and CancerCare provide wigs free of charge or at a discount based on financial need. And “most treatment centers provide a listing of local wig boutiques,” notes Ms. Panzer.
Talk to Your Children
It can be stressful to think about how losing your hair might affect your children or grandchildren. “Kids tend to cope better if they receive honest, age-appropriate information about what’s going on, so it’s a good idea to prepare them for the physical changes you expect to have before starting treatment,” explains Ms. Panzer.
Memorial Sloan Kettering offers a Kids Express program and a Parenting with Cancer support meeting designed to help adults with cancer communicate with their children about their illness. There are also books you can read with your children to help them understand that hair loss is common during cancer treatment.
Consult with a Dermatologist
A dermatologist can help address issues around skin sensitivity that may result from losing hair on your scalp and other areas of the body. They can also suggest topical drug formulations such as such as minoxidil for the scalp and bimatoprost for the eyelashes that may be used to speed up the regrowth of hair post-treatment.
Hair thinning that persists well beyond the completion of chemotherapy occurs in less than 2 percent of patients. In these cases, a dermatologist can run blood tests to determine if the cause is due to a thyroid problem or low levels of iron, zinc, or vitamin D, which can be replenished to stimulate hair growth.
Remember, Your Hair Will Grow Back
It helps to know that hair loss is almost always temporary. In most cases your hair will start to grow back two to three months after completing treatment. However, you should prepare yourself for the possibility of it growing back with a different texture and color.
Some people feel guilty for having body-image concerns in the midst of lifesaving treatment. For others, changes in appearance caused by cancer therapy can deepen feelings of loss and sadness. “Get counseling if you feel isolated or have no interest in the things you enjoyed before you were diagnosed, as these can be symptoms of depression,” says Ms. Panzer. “Depression is common among people with cancer, but counseling can help you understand your feelings and better cope as you transition into survivorship.”