Hair loss and thinning due to cancer treatment can be very upsetting. There are some practical things you can do to help.
Tips for possible complete hair loss
- Ask about a wig before you start treatment, so you can match the colour and texture of your real hair.
- If you are feeling adventurous, choose a wig for a whole new look – why not try the colour and style you've always wanted!
- Think about having your hair gradually cut short before your treatment starts - this might help you get used to seeing yourself with less hair.
- Some people shave their hair off completely to avoid the distress of seeing their hair fall out.
- Wear a hair net at night so you won't wake up with hair all over your pillow, which can be upsetting.
- Keep your head warm in cooler weather - some people wear a soft hat in bed.
- Rub in oil or moisturiser if your scalp feels dry and itchy, try unperfumed products such as Epaderm, Hydromol or Doublebase.
- Try a moisturising liquid (emollient) instead of soap if your scalp is dry, for example aqueous cream, Oilatum or Diprobase.
- Protect your scalp by covering your head in the sun - your scalp is particularly sensitive to the sun.
Tips for hair loss or thinning
- Use gentle hair products such as baby shampoos.
- Don't use perms or hair colours on thinning hair – colours may not take well and perms can damage the hair.
- Use a soft baby brush and comb thinning hair gently.
- Avoid using hair dryers, curling tongs, hair straighteners and curlers on thinning hair and pat your hair dry after washing.
- If your scalp flakes or itches this means it is dry – use oil or moisturiser, not dandruff shampoo.
- Protect your scalp by covering your head in the sun.
Covering your head
There are a lot of ways to cover your head if your hair falls out.
A wig is the most obvious choice. But not everyone wants to wear one. They can be a bit hot and itchy, especially in the summer. You can wear a soft inner cap (a wig stocking) under the wig to make it more comfortable. Some people worry that the wig will slip or fall off. You can buy sticky pads designed specifically to keep the wig still.
Some people prefer hats, scarves or baseball caps. Or you can just leave your head uncovered if you feel confident with your bald head.
Ask your nurse if you think you would like a wig. Some people can get a wig on the NHS.
There are different types of hats and scarves you can wear when you have hair loss or thinning. You can buy these in high street shops or on the internet.
When your hair grows back
Hair usually grows back once your chemotherapy has finished. In very rare cases the hair does not grow back. This usually only happens with very high doses of particular drugs.
Regrowth might take several months or longer and your hair is likely to be softer. It might come back a different colour and may be curlier than before. It will probably grow back at the same rate as it grew before chemotherapy.
Hair thinning due to hormone therapy could stop or slow within the first year of starting treatment. Or it should at least improve once treatment has finished.
Targeted cancer drugs and immunotherapy
Within a few weeks of finishing targeted cancer drugs or immunotherapy you might have:
- thickening of hair if you had hair thinning
- regrowth of hair if you had hair loss
With some targeted cancer drugs and immunotherapy, hair might start to grow before you stop your treatment.
Hair usually grows back after radiotherapy for most people. But some people might have permanent hair loss. This is more likely if you have had higher doses of radiotherapy. Ask your doctor what they think might happen in your situation.
It might take 6 months, or more for hair to grow back. The more radiotherapy you have had, the longer your hair takes to grow back.
It may not be quite as thick as before, or regrowth could be patchy. Your hair might grow back a different colour or texture. For example, it may be curly when it used to be straight.
Your feelings about hair loss
Hair loss and hair thinning can be very stressful. Some people find it the hardest part of having cancer and its treatment. This is understandable because our appearance is closely linked to our feelings of self esteem. Trying to accept sudden changes in your looks can be very hard. Social activities might seem more difficult.
It’s not unusual to feel angry and depressed. You might feel worried about how your friends and family see you. And you may think that you are no longer as physically attractive. If you have children or grandchildren, you might worry about how they feel about seeing you without hair. You might also worry about how their friends will see you, and if this will affect your children. It’s natural to worry about these things.
Remember though, that the people closest to you will not see you any differently as a person. They will want to support you as much as they can, so it's important to tell them how you’re feeling. Talking things through can help you to feel less isolated and more able to cope.