Hair After Chemotherapy
Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells anywhere in the body. Cancer cells divide continuously at a fast pace, as do the cells that create hair. Chemotherapy can’t distinguish between these cells so attacks the hair cells too. The extent of hair loss can vary and will depend on the type of drugs used.
It takes time for the chemotherapy drugs to leave the body so the hair will not start to grow back immediately, new growth can usually be seen after 8-12 weeks. For some this can happen more quickly.
Radiation therapy can also attack the cells in your body but unlike chemotherapy the radiation only affects the specific area of concentration. This hair loss can be either temporary or permanent depending on the type and dosage of the radiation you receive. Your doctor will be able to advice on the effects of your treatment.
Hair Growth & Diet
The hair grows approximately ½ -1cm a month, 6 inches in a year, and at any given time, each of the one hundred thousand follicles we all have, will be in one of the three stages of hair growth and shedding.
· Anagen, stage 1, the hair is actively growing. This stage can last between 2-7 years. Each individual will have a different active stage, and this will determine the length you can grow your hair to.
· Catagen, stage 2, the hair is in transition, no longer actively growing but encased in the follicle. 3% of the follicles will be in this phase at any one time.
· Telogen, stage 3, the hair is resting and ready to shred. 6-8% of the hair will be in this phase at any given time. This accounts for daily hair loss of 25-100 hairs.
After chemotherapy each follicle will return to the anagen phase at different times so it may seem the hair grows back more slowly than before and appears patchy. Areas to the front of the head and crown can be the areas that take the longest to grow back. After a few months all the follicles should have return to anagen, and the hair will appear thicker. During this catch-up time regular cuts can help the appearance of the hair.
Following treatment, you can be run down and depleted of nutrients so this may also be part of the reason the hair grows back slowly, it takes a lot of energy to grow hair and if the body has any depletion of vital nutrients the hair will be the last to be fed. A diet with these key ingredients is the way to a healthy head of admirable hair.
· Protein Hair is made predominately from a protein called Keratin. A diet high in protein supports the production of keratin. Chicken, turkey, fish, dairy products and eggs are an excellent source of protein. Vegetarians and vegans can get their protein form legumes and nuts.
· Iron is a major mineral in the production of hair. A blood supply rich in iron, serum ferritin, feeds the follicle. If iron levels fall below 70mgl this can disrupt the nutrient supply and affect the growth cycle of the hair which can lead to shedding. Red meat, chicken and fish provide iron that is easily absorbed by the body. Vegetarians and
vegans can replenish they iron stores with lentils and dark green vegetables like spinach, kale, broccoli and salad greens.
· Vitamin C aids the absorption of iron into the body, especially when eaten in conjunction with iron rich foods. Vitamin C is high in antioxidants which protect the follicle from free radicals and improves the production of collagen. Berries, oranges, kiwi fruits, sweet potatoes and broccoli are all a good source of vitamin C.
· Vitamin A is needed to produce Sebum. This is the natural oil excreted by the sebaceous gland to condition the scalp, without it your scalp can become itchy or flaky. Carrots, sweet potatoes and pumpkins all contain beta-carotene which makes Vitamin A.
· Vitamin E protects the hair and skin from sun damage. Nuts are a power source so don’t forget to snack on these.
Be gentle to your hair. Don’t have a chemical treatment i.e.: colouring or perming etc.
Consider cutting your hair shorter. A shorter style will look fuller than longer hair and it will assist you in reevaluating your appearance as it may be many years before your hair is back to where it was before treatment.
Plan a head covering. Whether it be a wig or head wear having them organised pre-treatment means you are prepared for when the hair fall begins which for some can be after the first treatment. The cost of a wig may be covered by the NHS or health insurer.
Be gentle to your hair use a soft brush.
Wash only when necessary and use a gentle shampoo.
Do not colour your hair.
Clipping your hair can be liberating for some as there is no need to deal with continuous falling hair and may make wearing wigs or head coverings more comfortable. The head can feel itchy, sensitive and irritated during treatment and clipping remaining hair can reduce these symptoms. There are many specialist hairdressers that can help you with this transition.
It is also advisable to protect the scalp from sunlight and cold weather. Hair gives your head protection from the sun so apply a sunscreen and wear a covering scarf or hat. Hair keeps the head warm in colder climes, so a hat or scarf will keep your warm.
Continue gentle hair care. Your new hair will be fragile so avoid rough brushing or styling. Avoid high heat when styling. Chemical treatments should not be carried out for between 6-12 months while the hair grows stronger.
Having a regular cut can help the hair look fuller and easier to style.
Be patient. Once the chemotherapy drugs have left the body the follicle will return to work, but this can be a slow process. Scalp stimulators can be used to increase hair growth but always skin teat prior to use as your scalp will still be sensitive. Low Level therapy is a kinder safer way to stimulate hair growth.
Eat a well-balanced diet to replenish any depleted nutrient stores. Making smoothies is a great way to increase nutrients into the body without facing a huge meal.
October 2023 | Elizabeth Smith ART/USTI | Trichologist | HeadWrappers