Losing your locks to cancer treatments may be one of your biggest concerns. But there are plenty of options — wigs, scarves, and more — that can help you feel a little more like yourself.
When I received my breast cancer diagnosis, dozens of questions and fears raced through my mind: Would I need chemo? Would I have a mastectomy? How would I get through this?
That first question weighed heavily on my mind, as I knew chemotherapy would bring a host of other issues while treating my cancer. I soon learned my treatment course would include chemo — dose-dense rounds of a doxorubicin (Adriamycin) and cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan) combo, followed by paclitaxel (Taxol) — forcing me to face the reality that I would indeed lose my hair.
Hair loss during cancer treatment with chemotherapy is pretty common, although some chemo drugs don’t cause hair to fall out. And while it may sound frivolous or vain, the idea that I might lose my hair ranked pretty high among my chemo concerns.
Losing your hair brings on body issues you may not expect to deal with while treating cancer. Not only did I feel sick, but suddenly I looked sick, too — people could easily tell that I was a cancer patient when they saw my bald head and eyebrow-free face. I felt conspicuous and unlike my usual self.
But here’s the good news: Your hair will grow back. And in the meantime, there are things you can do to manage the hair changes brought on by breast cancer treatment.
If your chemotherapy drugs cause hair loss, it generally begins around 2–3 weeks after your first treatment. For me, that translated to the week after my second Adriamycin/Cytoxan infusion. My hair loss started slowly at first — a few more strands on my brush and pillow in the morning — and sped up after that second chemo dose.
In anticipation of losing my hair, I got a cut to minimize the amount that would fall out. I had long hair, so I trimmed it into a shorter bob. Once my hair began falling out in earnest, I shaved my remaining tresses so the bald spots wouldn’t be so noticeable.
You may have heard of cold caps, which help some people avoid losing their hair, or at least some of it, during chemo. The caps are tightly fitting, helmet-like hats filled with cold gel worn during treatment sessions.
They reduce blood flow to the scalp, slowing down circulation so that hair follicles aren’t exposed to as much of the chemotherapy drug. But it’s important to remember that cold caps don’t guarantee you’ll avoid hair loss.
Many people wear wigs once their hair falls out. Wigs can give you the opportunity to replicate your original look or have fun trying new styles and colors.
When I cut my hair before beginning chemo, I also made an appointment to get fitted for a wig. I wanted to find a wig that would resemble my real hair as closely as possible, so I started shopping for one before those tresses fell out.
I went to a shop in my city that specializes in wigs for people with cancer, but if you don’t have that option, the American Cancer Society offers a range of wigs and other headgear for sale through their site TLC Direct. One thing to note: A quality wig will likely be expensive, but I also found more affordable wigs in fun colors and styles on Amazon.
Even if you get a wig, you may not always want to wear it. I lost my hair in the height of the summer, so wearing a wig felt hot and uncomfortable.
On the days I couldn’t bear to sweat it out, I opted for a scarf or hat to cover my head. While a regular scarf will work fine, TLC Direct also offers a range of scarves, hats, and turbans designed for people with cancer.
I ordered a scarf and hat from them and donned a well-worn baseball cap on days when I felt casual. The key is to find hats or scarves with fabrics that are soft and breathable so that they’ll feel comfortable on your scalp, which can be tender, especially right after your hair falls out.
Another option for dealing with hair loss is simply going bald. Many people with breast cancer find that embracing their baldness allows them to rebuild their confidence after losing their hair.
If you opt to go bald, it’s important to remember to apply sunscreen to your scalp before going outside.
While the hair on top of your head may be your focus, you may also lose eyelashes and eyebrows, along with body hair, during chemo.
My eyebrows didn’t completely fall out, but they became very thin and sparse, so I filled them in with an eyebrow pencil and tinted brow gel. I retained just a few lashes, so when I applied makeup, I would add eyeliner to disguise the absence of lashes. And with false lashes being so readily available now, it’s easy to use fakes until your real lashes return.
Seeing those first sprigs of hair sprout from your scalp after completing chemo can feel exhilarating. Hair usually begins regrowing within 6 months after completing treatment. But don’t be surprised if that new growth looks or feels different from your regular hair.
Many people find their hair comes back curlier, coarser, or a different color. Chemo drugs can alter the makeup of hair, causing these changes. In my case, my once slightly wavy hair came back in a tangle of tight curls.
My first instinct was to straighten them, but I learned that finding curl-friendly products made my hair look and feel better than fighting to tame my tresses into their former state. I also began taking a biotin supplement to encourage my hair growth, but be sure to clear any supplements with your oncologist before taking them.
Losing your hair can feel like adding insult to injury when you’re going through breast cancer treatment. But it’s important to remember that this is a temporary change, and with the right preparation and products, you can successfully navigate this stage of your journey, too.
Medically reviewed on June 26, 2023
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