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Is Hair Loss A Sign Of Cancer

Is Hair Loss A Sign Of Cancer


Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP

Cancer is one of the most difficult and taxing diseases to treat. It can wreak havoc on the body and weaken the immune system and just about every other system for that matter.

It can make you tired, frail, pale and run down. But can it make you bald?

Between the scarves and the Locks of Love campaigns, we all know that hair loss during cancer is a frequent occurrence.

But if youre reading this, youre probably wondering, as many people do, whether hair loss is a result of the treatments, or also of the cancer itself.

Weve put together a comprehensive look at the cancer/hair loss question. But first lets start with what you probably already know.

Medications Chemotherapy & Poison

Many types of medication have hair loss as a side effect, though this rarely occurs. Blood pressure medication and drugs that reduce cholesterol are known to cause shedding in approximately 1% of users. If youre experiencing it, which you believe could be related to your ongoing therapy, please immediately contact your physician.

Cancer treatments and medications like chemotherapy are also a cause of hair loss. Like Hodgkins lymphoma, some types of cancer may cause hair loss, but chemotherapy is still the primary cancer-related cause. You may lose most, if not all, of your hair within the first few weeks of starting chemotherapy or radiation treatment. Luckily, it begins to regrow after you finish your therapy.

Moreover, exposure to poisonous substances, no matter how minute, can lead to hair loss over time. Ingesting large quantities of otherwise safe substances, like Vitamin A and selenium, can also be toxic and can lead to shedding. Luckily, it tends to grow back once the exposure ceases.

Coping With Hair Loss

Hair is constantly growing, with old hairs falling out and being replaced by new ones. Some cancer treatments make people lose some or all of their hair, most often in clumps during shampooing or brushing.

Its normal for both men and women to feel upset about losing their hair. It helps to know that hair grows back, and you can take steps to make its loss less of problem for you.

Hair is lost when chemotherapy drugs damage hair follicles, making hair fall out. It can be hard to predict which patients will lose their hair and which ones wont, even when they take the same drugs. Some drugs can cause hair thinning or hair loss only on the scalp. Others can also cause the thinning or loss of pubic hair, arm and leg hair, eyebrows, and eyelashes.

Radiation therapy to the head often causes scalp hair loss. Sometimes, depending on the dose of radiation to the head, the hair does not grow back the same as it was before.

If hair loss is going to happen, it most often starts within 1-3 weeks of treatment and becomes more noticeable 1 to 2 months after starting therapy. Your scalp may feel very sensitive to washing, combing, or brushing. But hair often starts to grow back even before treatment ends.

Also Check: What To Do If You Have Thinning Hair

What Are The Symptoms Of Stage 1 Colon Cancer


  • A persistent change in your bowel habits, including diarrhea or constipation or a change in the consistency of your stool.
  • Rectal bleeding or blood in your stool.
  • Persistent abdominal discomfort, such as cramps, gas or pain.
  • A feeling that your bowel doesnt empty completely.
  • Weakness or fatigue.

How To Prepare For Hair Loss

Can Hair Loss be a Sign of Cancer?
  • Each person is different. Ask your health care team if hair loss is likely to happen. If it is, ask if it will happen quickly or gradually.
  • If you are going to get chemotherapy that might cause hair loss, talk to your health care team about whether a cooling cap might help reduce your risk. More research is being done to understand how effective and safe cooling caps may be. There are some side effects of cooling caps to consider, such as headaches, scalp pain, and neck and shoulder discomfort. Talk to your health care team about the benefits, limitations, and side effects of cooling caps.
  • If the thought of losing your hair bothers you, you might choose to cut your hair very short or even shave your head before it starts falling out.
  • If you think you might want a wig, buy it before treatment begins or at the very start of treatment. Ask if the wig can be adjusted you might need a smaller wig as you lose hair. To match hair color, you can cut a swatch of hair from the top front of your head, where hair is lightest..
  • Wigs and other scalp coverings may be partially or fully covered by your health insurance. If so, ask for a prescription for a cranial prosthesis. Do not use the word wig on the prescription.
  • Get a list of wig shops in your area from your cancer team, other patients, or from the phone book. You can also order the American Cancer Societys tlc Tender Loving Care® catalog by visiting tlc or by calling 1-800-850-9445.

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When You Have Hair Loss

  • If youre going to buy a wig, try on different styles until you find one you really like. Consider buying 2 wigs, one for everyday use and one for special occasions.
  • Synthetic wigs need less care and styling than human hair wigs. They also cost less and may be easier to manage if your energy is low during cancer treatment.
  • Some people find wigs are hot or itchy, and use turbans or scarves instead. Cotton fabrics tend to stay on a smooth scalp better than nylon or polyester.
  • If your hair becomes very thin or is completely gone during treatment, be sure to protect the skin on your scalp from heat, cold, and the sun. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor of at least 30 and a hat. In cold weather, wear a hat or scarf to cover and stay warm.
  • Your scalp may feel itchy or sensitive. Be gentle when brushing and washing your hair. Using a wide-toothed comb may help.
  • Hair loss might be somewhat reduced by avoiding too much brushing or pulling .
  • Wear a hair net at night, or sleep on a satin pillowcase to keep hair from coming out in clumps. Be gentle with eyelashes and eyebrows, which might also be affected.
  • When new hair starts to grow, it may break easily at first. Avoid perms and dyes for the first few months. Keep hair short and easy to style.
  • Your new hair may be curlier or straighter, thicker or fineror even a new color. Usually this change is short term with time your hair will very likely go back to the way it was before treatment.

Medical Condition & Infection

Bald spots, breakage, and thinning can be caused by an underlying medical condition such as alopecia, a thyroid condition, lupus, nutritional deficiencies, and other types of diseases. Conditions like autoimmune alopecia can cause loss of eyelashes or eyebrows. Depending on the type of alopecia, it may also affect the scalp, causing the loss of larger quantities of hair.

A scalp infection on the other hand can cause scaliness and inflammation of the scalp. If left untreated, it can lead to losing strands and bald spots. Treating the infection and inflammation does allow strands to grow back.

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How Is Hair Loss Diagnosed

Persistent hair loss often indicates an underlying health issue.

Your doctor or dermatologist can determine the cause of your hair loss based on a physical examination and your health history. In some cases, simple dietary changes can help. Your doctor may also change your prescription medications.

If your dermatologist suspects an autoimmune or skin disease, they might take a biopsy of the skin on your scalp.

This will involve carefully removing a small section of skin for laboratory testing. Its important to keep in mind that hair growth is a complex process. It may take time to determine the exact cause of your hair loss.

Alopecia Due To Cutaneous Lymphoma Can Be Reversed

Senior NHS Cancer Nurse Shares Her Emotional Hair Loss Journey (Zoom recording)

Treatment of the cutaneous lymphoma often leads to re-growth of hair. However, even in patients with seemingly complete resolution of skin disease, hair loss can still persist.1

Alopecia is not only caused by cutaneous lymphoma itself but may also be seen secondarily as a side effect of treatments. Many commonly used treatments including interferons , oral bexarotene , vorinostat , methotrexate and others have been associated with alopecia the percent of patients who have experienced this side effect is listed in parentheses. Though bexarotene has been associated with causing hair loss, one study found that the gel and oral capsules may also lead to partial re-growth of hair.3 Most of the time treatment-related hair loss is reversible, but the hair may never reach the same level of thickness as before.

Local and total body radiation can also cause hair loss in the areas being treated. In contrast to chemotherapy induced alopecia, hair loss due to radiation is more frequently permanent. Patients who undergo lower doses of radiation therapy have a higher possibility of new hair growth. Re-growth, when it occurs, usually begins 3-6 months after the resolution of chemotherapy or radiation.

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Looking After Your Scalp After Hair Loss

Remember to protect your scalp from the sun. Cover your head when in the sun or use a high protection factor sun cream at all times, as the scalp is particularly sensitive.

We lose a lot of heat from our heads so cover your scalp in colder weather.

If your scalp is dry, flaky or itchy you can use unperfumed moisturiser or natural oils such as almond or olive oil to help with this. Some people use aromatherapy oils, but it is best to consult a trained aromatherapist as the oils can be very strong.

How To Know If Hair Loss Is A Sign Of Serious Illness

This article is written by Lee Walters.

Besides protecting and insulating our scalp, the hair on our head is mother natures organic style accessory, as it also complements our beauty. A voluminous and shiny mane with plenty of movement is what most people consider healthy and find attractive. So, its perfectly reasonable for your heart to skip a beat when you find a clump of hair in the drain.

Debilitated, feeble, and fragile hair is often associated with health issues, and hair loss can signal the existence of an underlying medical condition. Other times, it can only be a result of improper hair care.

Read through our article to find out when its time to visit your dermatologist or physician, or when to change your favorite shampoo brand.

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Can Cold Caps And Scalp Cooling Prevent Hair Loss During Treatment

Cooling the scalp can sometimes prevent or reduce hair loss from the head for both men and women having chemotherapy. This technique works by reducing the blood flow to the hair follicles, which means that the amount of drugs reaching the hair follicles is also reduced.

The effectiveness of scalp cooling varies depending on the drug and dose used, and from person to person. If you do keep your hair, you may find that its patchy or thinner. Scalp cooling is often less effective on African and Caribbean hair, so increased cooling times may be recommended.

There are two widely available ways of cooling the scalp. One method uses a cold cap, which is a hat filled with a gel that can be chilled. The other system uses a small, refrigerated cooling machine to pump a liquid coolant through the cap. In both cases the cap is worn before, during and after chemotherapy, so scalp cooling can mean youre at the hospital for longer.

You can ask your specialist or chemotherapy nurse if scalp cooling is available and whether it would be suitable for you. The condition of your hair and any previous use of chemicals on it may affect how well scalp cooling works. Your chemotherapy nurse will discuss this with you.

Some doctors have been concerned that scalp cooling may increase the risk of developing secondary cancers in the brain or scalp due to the possibility of constricted blood vessels limiting the amount of chemotherapy reaching the area.

Coping With Hair Loss: Tips For Families

Pattern Hair Loss

Hair loss can be one of the most upsetting side effects of cancer treatment. Hair loss is a visible reminder of being sick. For children and teens trying to be normal and fit in with their peers, this can have a big impact on well-being and quality of life. The care team, including child life specialists, social workers, and psychologists, can help prepare families and provide resources. It can also help to hear from other families about their experiences.

Also Check: Does Keeps For Hair Loss Work

Looking After Your Hair During Breast Cancer Treatment

The following tips may be helpful for all hair types during treatment:

  • try not to wash your hair for about two days after chemotherapy, especially if having scalp cooling
  • use a mild, unperfumed shampoo and conditioner
  • try not to wash your hair more than twice a week
  • use warm rather than hot water
  • pat your hair dry rather than rubbing it
  • brush or comb your hair gently with a soft hairbrush or wide tooth plastic comb
  • avoid plaiting or braiding it as this may damage your hair
  • avoid using elastic bands to tie back long hair
  • avoid any hair colours and dyes, perms, relaxers and other products containing strong chemicals
  • avoid products containing alcohol, such as hairspray, which can irritate the scalp
  • avoid excessive heat from hair straighteners, hairdryers, hot brushes and heated rollers
  • massaging the scalp may help by improving the blood supply to the hair follicles
  • avoid hair extensions and weaves as these can also weaken the hair

If chemotherapy doesnt cause hair loss, it may make it brittle, dry or straw-like, so its a good idea to treat your hair as gently as possible. Hormone therapy can also cause the hair to thin and feel fragile.

Due to its structure, African and Caribbean hair is the most vulnerable to damage of all hair textures so it is recommended to take special care and use specific products.

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