Hair loss, or alopecia, is a common side effect of both chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Chemotherapy targets cells that divide rapidly, like hair follicles. Scalp hair is most commonly affected, but other facial and body hair can be affected as well. If hair loss from chemotherapy occurs, it will usually happen within the first two weeks of treatment.
Some chemotherapy drugs cause thinning or complete hair loss, while others cause no hair loss at all. The degree of hair loss depends on the type of medication, dosage, administration method, and schedule. Hair loss caused by chemotherapy is usually temporary, and regrowth usually occurs 3-5 months after treatments are completed. There may be some changes in texture and color.
Radiation also damages cells that grow at a fast rate, which includes hair follicles. Hair loss caused by radiation usually affects only the area being treated, but it can be temporary or permanent depending on the dosage. It may cause thinning or complete hair loss, and the hair may change in texture or color when it regrows. Each person responds differently to radiation, so providers are not always able to predict the outcome of radiation therapy in regards to hair loss.
Everyone approaches and experiences hair loss differently. Some studies have shown that products called cold caps can help prevent hair loss from chemotherapy for some people. They reduce blood flow to the scalp, which stops the chemotherapy from affecting the hair follicles. If thinning is expected, be gentle and avoid hot tools and up-dos. Cutting the hair shorter before treatment may help decrease the emotional impact of complete hair loss—some people choose to shave their head completely before hair loss occurs. Wigs are great options for some, while others prefer hats, scarves, turbans, or no covering at all. Financial assistance for wig purchases may be available through insurance or local organizations. It is okay to do whatever feels comfortable. It is normal to feel upset about hair loss—make sure to communicate these feelings to friends, family, and the care team.