Cancer treatment and hair loss

Hair growth takes place in the cells of the hair follicles (roots). Healthy hair follicles divide every one to three days, and new hair cells form and build the hair shaft in a cyclical pattern of growth and rest.

Treatments that affect the rapidly dividing cancer cells also affect other rapidly dividing cells, such as the hair follicles. Ask your doctor if the drugs you are receiving are likely to cause hair loss.

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Chemotherapy and hair loss

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to reduce or stop the abnormal growth of cancer cells. Not all of them cause hair loss. Chemotherapy drugs are usually given in cycles (sometimes weekly or every two or three weeks) and the amount of hair loss depends on the type of drug, the dose and the timing of treatment.

Hair loss can occur anywhere on the body including the scalp, eyebrows, eyelashes, chest, underarms, pubic area and the moustache and beard areas in men. Eyelashes and eyebrows may take longer to fall out.

Chemotherapy causes the hair to break off at or near the scalp. Shortly before the hair falls out you might feel some scalp irritation, discomfort or itchiness. You may notice hair on your pillow and sheets and when you brush or wash it. The hair may fall out over a very short period of time (days). It is common for hair loss to begin about 2–4 weeks after starting treatment.

Radiation therapy and hair loss

Radiation therapy is the use of high energy x-rays to stop cancer cells from growing and multiplying. Normal cells in the path of the beam will also be affected and this can include the hair follicles.

Hair will only fall out in the area of the body being treated. For example, if you are having radiation therapy to your head you will probably lose some hair from your scalp. If the area being treated includes an armpit or your chest, then it is only hair in these regions that is likely to fall out.

Cold caps to minimise hair loss

Some treatment centres offer ‘cold caps’ which are said to help reduce the amount of hair loss. Not all treatment centres offer these as they can be expensive and not always successful. If you are interested, ask your treatment centre if they are available and if there is a cost involved.

This information was last reviewed in February 2015
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