Chemo, Radiation and your hair

For some people the word cancer creates fear and confusion. This can also be applied to chemotherapy and radiation therapy used in cancer treatment. Patients can be uneasy about the treatment and possible side effects, particularly hair loss. It’s only natural. This is not an everyday occurrence for you. You may not be prepared. Given the facts and the opportunity to study them, most of us will feel less fearful. We feel better about the treatment, and we cooperate better because we understand what is happening and more importantly, why. That’s the aim of this information: To give you facts in non-medical language about the relationship between chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and hair loss.

Cancer, as a term, applies to a large group of diseases characterized by uncontrolled growth and spread of abnormal cells. The biochemical process, through which cancerous cells reproduce and grow in the body, is similar to the way healthy body cells actively reproduce. The “growing” stage in the hair root cycle, and the abnormal growth of cancer cells, are very much alike. It surprises most people to learn that strands of their “growing” hair are technically lifeless. Real growth only takes place in the hair follicle (the root). Here a constant process of cell division is taking place. Certain amino acids – nature’s building blocks – are taken from the blood feeding the hair roots, to be joined with the dividing cells. New cells begin to form into chains. Those chains link up with other chains. The result is a long fiber. By this time, the nucleus of the original cell is dead. The amino acids have formed into a hard keratin.

What is keratin? It is the protein substance that hair and nails are made from. It is inert or lifeless. It gets pushed ahead by the newly forming cells in the hair root (follicle). As it gets pushed farther and farther out, hair appears to “grow”. And in a sense it really does. From the roots, not at the ends.

This briefly sums up a very complex chemical process. The point is, hair growth takes place in the hair root where the amino acids from the blood first join with the dividing cells. Significantly, this same process is the one by which all body cells reproduce themselves. The hair follicle follows this pattern on a cyclical basis. That is, the root builds the hair shaft for a period of time, and rests for a while. Then, it begins producing hair again. The building state is one of the body’s most active “growing” processes.

Since cancer is a condition of uncontrolled cell growth, anticancer drug administration (such as chemotherapy) aims at reducing, or stopping, this abnormal growth. Medical science continues to gain knowledge of the growth processes both of normal and abnormal cells. At the same time, the biochemical and pharmacological members of the health team have made tremendous progress in learning more about the specific ways certain drugs act upon cell reproduction.

Success in selection and administration of drugs, to take advantage of the vulnerability of cancer cells during their growth cycle, has been a blessing to millions. Drugs have become increasingly more useful (along with radiation and other means) in treating many forms of cancer. It has become possible to preserve the lives of more people every day. Anticancer drugs act on both normal cells and cancerous cells. All cells are more receptive to the action of drugs during active cell reproduction. Cells which reproduce most rapidly are those most likely to be destroyed. Some normal cells – such as hair follicles – also divide rapidly, which is why they are also affected by chemotherapy. Science has not yet discerned how to make today’s drugs able to distinguish between rapidly reproducing normal cells and abnormal cells. Your health team will work with you to carefully balance the benefits with the risks.

For some people the word cancer creates fear and confusion. This can also be applied to chemotherapy and radiation therapy used in cancer treatment. Patients can be uneasy about the treatment and possible side effects, particularly hair loss. It’s only natural. This is not an everyday occurrence for you. You may not be prepared. Given the facts and the opportunity to study them, most of us will feel less fearful. We feel better about the treatment, and we cooperate better because we understand what is happening and more importantly, why. That’s the aim of this information: To give you facts in non-medical language about the relationship between chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and hair loss.

At any one time, about 85% of the hair follicles are reproducing on the human scalp. This is when hair gets longer. For this reason, chemotherapy drugs whose chief purpose is to attack and destroy the rapidly reproducing cancer cells may have the same effect on your active hair cells. Various drugs are used in chemotherapy treatment. The amount of hair loss depends upon the type and dosage prescribed. Your medical health team can advise you on what to expect about hair loss. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Not all chemotherapy drugs cause hair loss. Best of all, in all but rare instances, the loss of hair is temporary! When chemotherapy is completed, you can expect that the hair follicles will resume their task of processing amino acids from your blood and building new hair for you. Radiation therapy is the use of high energy rays to stop cancer cells from growing and multiplying. Radiation destroys the ability of all cells within its reach – cancerous and normal – to grow and reproduce. However, cancer cells are more sensitive to radiation than normal cells. If radiation is given just as the cancer cell is about to reproduce – to divide into two cells – the radiation will prevent the cell from dividing and it will die. Radiation is a strong treatment for cancer and can sometimes affect normal tissue, causing side effects. With radiation treatments to the head and neck area, one possible side effect may be hair loss. You may temporarily lose some or all of your hair (called alopecia) in the area being treated. In most cases your hair will start growing again after you’ve finished your treatments. Losing your hair isn’t easy. It may take some adjustment. Some people choose to cover their heads with a hat, scarf, or turban. Others prefer to replace their hair. If you choose to replace your hair, you can choose a fashionable wig, or you can choose a prosthetic hair system. Happily, fakey-looking “wigs” are a thing of the past. Technology has advanced   considerably. You can look the way you like. You can even enhance your self image.

There are different types of wigs available. Human hair wigs tend to be more expensive and need more servicing. Some synthetic wigs are less expensive, and some special synthetic wigs are more expensive. They are easier to style, wash easily, dry quickly, and need less care. Both can look very natural because they can be fitted specifically to your head. Hair prostheses are the latest technological advance in replacing lost hair. They are made to meet the specific  needs of the hair loss patient. They are form fitted to become part of you and designed to be styled as though it were your own hair. Prosthetic hair washes easily, dries quickly, and needs minimal care. It’s very natural in appearance and the most flexible in application. Obtaining a wig or prosthetic hair system before the effects of therapy begin to be obvious, is a good idea. Get one styled to look like your own familiar style, or select a different style. Some men and women do both. No one needs know you have lost your hair. A professional hairstylist, wig salon, or hair clinic, familiar with your type of hair loss, can fit you with one that defies detection.

A wig or hair prosthesis may be a tax deductible medical expense, and is sometimes covered by insurance. Contact both the Internal Revenue Service and your health insurance company to  find out. Some hospitals, clinics, and organizations have free wig programs or can help offset

the cost. The American Cancer Society, Cancer Information Service, your medical health team, or a social worker may be very helpful in this respect. Fortunately, chemotherapy and radiation therapy act on the new cells being reproduced, not on the hair follicles themselves. Hence, hair loss will be temporary in most cases. You can expect normal hair growth to return when therapy is discontinued. Meanwhile, take better-than-routine care of your hair and scalp during therapy. With the approval of your doctor or nurse, follow these good hair care guidelines:

• Shampoo regularly (every 2 to 4 days).

• Avoid high heat, such as in dryers and combs, in drying or styling your hair.

• Comb or brush gently to minimize undue strain on your hair. (Try a baby hairbrush with soft bristles.)

• Avoid braids, corn-rows or naturals.

• Do not sleep with rollers in your hair.

• Consider using a satin pillowcase. Think of the luxury! This will reduce friction between your hair and the pillowcase.

• Above all, stay away from any kind of harsh chemical treatments to your hair – such as coloring, permanent waving.

• Keep your hair and scalp clean with gentle products.

And don’t believe the myth that covering your head can impede future hair growth. It doesn’t.

We hope this information will help you cope better with the expected hair loss during therapy by knowing the facts. When in doubt, consult your medical health team. And remember, a positive attitude won’t hinder therapy of any kind.

 

This information has been provided by International Hairgoods a division of Aderans Hair Goods, Inc. ©2012 Copyright.