Chemotherapy remains one of the most popular treatment modalities for cancer; However many patients remain in constant dread of its side effects, most notably - the sudden hair loss that is seen in most Chemotherapy patients. In this piece, we're investigating the causes of hair loss by Chemotherapy, what can be done to care for hair during the treatment, and the aspect of hair growing back after Chemotherapy.
Why does hair fall during Chemotherapy?
Alopecia (Hair Loss) or is one of the most visible side effects of chemotherapy. In order to understand why Chemotherapy causes hair loss, we need to understand how Chemotherapy works. Regular chemotherapy (Cytotoxic chemotherapy) makes use of non-targeted drugs to kill cancer cells. Cancer cells are identified by their ability to divide rapidly. Cytotoxic drugs (used in Chemotherapy) are basically drugs that aim to quickly destroy these rapidly dividing cells or to delay their growth. In the process, they also kill other healthy cells that divide rapidly, such as hair follicles. As hair follicles get attacked rapidly in a short period of time, it leads to acute hairfall and sometimes, balding.
Why don't all Chemotherapy patients lose hair?
Not all Chemotherapy drugs cause rapid hair loss. The degree of hair loss is different for different drug types. For example, Breast Cancer drugs are known to cause the most hair loss. Each Chemotherapy treatment uses a specific mix of cancer drugs, which is why all Chemotherapy patients do not experience aggressive hairfall. Nominal side effects (such as hair thinning, or partial balding) are still seen in most patients, as a result of hair follicles being attacked.
How to care for hair during Chemotherapy?
It is recommended to take mild-to-gentle care of hair during Chemotherapy. It is recommended that patients don't wash their hair too often, and when washing their hair, they are advised to use a mild shampoo. If a hair dryer is in use, it should always be used at the lowest temperature setting available. Patients are strictly advised against color treatments or 'perms' while receiving Chemotherapy. Patients should also avoid using curlers or hard-surfaced brushes on their hair during this time.
Aside from this, the right, balanced dietary habits can go a long way in supplementing hair health during Chemotherapy.
When does hair start falling during Chemotherapy?
Generally, Chemotherapy patients start losing hair in the first 2-3 weeks of their treatment. Some patients lose hair gradually, and in some cases the change is more drastic - where they lose large quantities of hair (next to balding) very fast. By the time most people get to their second cycle of Chemotherapy, they go nearly/completely bald.
Does fallen hair grow back after Chemotherapy?
Yes. Any hair loss caused during Chemotherapy is not permanent, and this side effect should never act as a deterrent for people who have been advised to undergo Chemotherapy.
"Once the effect of Chemo drugs has worn off, hair follicles can resume their normal behavior of hair growth. For some people, hair starts growing back as early as 2-3 weeks after completion of chemotherapy and may grow up to 1 inch in 2 months. Time for full hair growth varies for different individuals."
-Dr Amit Jotwani, MD (Oncology)
So, the next time a friend or a family member in the process of considering or receiving chemotherapy gets distressed about losing hair, give them the right emotional insights and tell them that the hair loss aspect is a temporary one, and should never dissuade them from receiving the right treatment for cancer.
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