Hair Loss and Cancer Treatment
- After struggling with chest pain and heart palpitations, Anglee Kumar, 27, was diagnosed with stage four non-Hodgkin lymphoma (a type of blood cancer). She underwent six rounds of chemotherapy that she completed in February 2022, and now she’s getting ready to compete as a finalist for Miss Universe Great Britain.
- Kumar struggled with hair loss during chemotherapy, but her confidence has come a long way since.
- Chemotherapy and radiation can both cause hair loss or thinning, but both treatment options usually don’t cause permanent hair loss.
- Hair loss can be an emotional challenge for people undergoing cancer treatment. But our experts recommend allowing yourself to grieve the initial shock of hair loss to make it easier to accept and hopefully find some positivity from there.
Kumar is a 27-year-old paralegal competing in Miss Universe Great Britain for the chance to represent her country at the Miss Universe competition in December. But getting to the mental place where she feels confidence to do so has been a long journey since she was diagnosed with stage four non-Hodgkin Lymphoma in September 2021.Read More
But in the months that followed, she gradually developed more pain to the point where she suffered from heart palpitations 10 times a day. Family and friends figured it was just due to stress from her job as a paralegal, but Kumar knew it had to be something else.
Then, in April 2021, she went back to the hospital because she was struggling to even walk up the stairs. In May 2021, she started going to a private clinic.
“I’m a young and healthy person, but suddenly I felt like I was tired after climbing the steps on the Tube,” she said. “I had health insurance, so I went privately, but the doctors were telling me to just cut out alcohol and caffeine, which I did… But the palpitations kept happening, so I asked the private GP to refer me to a cardiologist.”
A series of blood tests, breathing tests, an ultrasound and a seven-day electrocardiogram (ECG) all came back normal, until one blood test showed “abnormal” results. Even then, she was told everything was fine, but she insisted on further investigation.
“I knew something was wrong,” she said. “We just couldn’t find out what it was.
“Every day I had a different test to do. I was getting a bit upset, as it was just so tiring to have a needle put into my arm every day.”
As her chest pains and breathlessness continued to escalate, Kumar went to another private practice in August 2021. There she saw a lung specialist and a rheumatologist who also told her she was “healthy and normal.”
But this time, she insisted on a CT scan that led to a pet scan and a biopsy that confirmed her diagnosis: non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Tests in November eventually revealed she had stage four non-Hodgkin lymphoma that had spread to her lungs.
She began her six rounds of chemotherapy on November 16, 2021, and it was grueling from the get-go.
“After every chemo I was very unwell and was hospitalized a few times,” she said. “Just two days after my first session I was hospitalized. I spent the day after my birthday in hospital throwing up.”
It generally took her about 10 days to recover from each chemotherapy session, but every course was a challenge that left her feeling “so vulnerable and weak.” And when she began to lose her hair her self-esteem and mental health really started to struggle.
“After the second round of chemotherapy I stopped looking in the mirror and I didn’t want to see my family, as I knew it would upset them to see me like this,” she said. “When [my hair] started falling out, I stopped brushing my hair because I didn’t want it to go. But it was just falling everywhere in the house.
“I spent every day crying on my own in my room. My whole life just stopped.”
Kumar finished her course of chemotherapy in February 2022, and her confidence has come a long way since then. She plans to rock a wig for the big event.
“I’m getting my energy back and I’m getting my voice back. When I get on that stage, I will feel as beautiful as I ever have,” she said. “Whether I have hair or not, with make up or not, I feel amazing.”
As far as her platform for the competition, Kumar says it’s all about “[inspiring] other women.”
“I’ve learned so much from this journey and with Miss Universe I’m definitely in it to win it,” she said. “I want people to know they can get through anything… I want people to know they don’t have to suffer alone.
“My platform in the competition is about helping young girls and women find their confidence so they can live to their best potential.”
Understanding Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma
Lymphoma, in general, is a type of blood cancer. Blood cancers can affect the bone marrow, blood cells, lymph nodes and other parts of the lymphatic system. The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society reports that every 3 minutes, one person in the U.S. is diagnosed with leukemia, lymphoma or myeloma.
More specifically, lymphoma is a cancer of the immune system that begins in the white blood cells called lymphocytes. Lymphoma begins when lymphocytes develop a genetic mutation that makes them multiply much faster than normal. This mutation also forces older cells that would normally die to stay alive. From there, the quickly multiplying lymphocytes collect and build up in your lymph nodes, the small glands in your neck, armpits, and other parts of your body.
There are more than 40 different types of the disease, but Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma are the main two sub-categories with the latter being much more common. The type of white blood cells linked to the disease determines the distinction. If doctors are unable to detect the Reed-Sternberg cell – a giant cell derived from B lymphocytes – then it is categorized as Non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
You might be at a higher risk for lymphoma if you:
- Have been infected with the HIV or Epstein-Barr virus
- Had an organ transplant
- Have a family history of lymphoma
- Have been treated with radiation or chemotherapy drugs for cancer in the past
- Have an autoimmune disease
Signs of Lymphoma
One thing to note about lymphomas is that this type of cancer often creeps in quietly, without symptoms. And even when symptoms do show up, they don’t necessarily point directly to cancer. In a previous interview, Dr. Elise Chong, a medical oncologist at Penn Medicine, explained that lymphoma symptoms could be difficult to detect.
“The symptoms of lymphoma, especially if you have a low-grade lymphoma, often are no symptoms,” Dr. Chong explained. “People say, but I feel completely fine, and that’s very normal.”
People with lymphoma do not always have symptoms, but common ones are:
- Swollen glands in your neck, armpit or groin
- Night sweats
- Unexplained weight loss
- Feeling tired
- Swelling in your stomach
No matter what, it’s important to communicate anything unusual happening to your body with your doctor. Even if you think there’s nothing to worry about, it’s good to rule out the possibility of more serious issues.
Hair Loss and Cancer Treatment
Many chemotherapies do cause hair loss or thinning, and this can be an incredibly distressing side effect. It’s important to speak with your doctor about any personal issues that may be caused by treatment side effects including the loss or thinning of your hair. To help patients cope with hair loss, a doctor or nurse may be able to recommend a local wig-maker or other resources that can help slow down the process.
However, it’s also important to remember that the hair loss associated with chemo is temporary. Hair loss typically begins about three to four weeks after beginning chemotherapy and continues throughout treatment. People can expect regrowth around four to six weeks after they complete treatment, but some patients may experience some changes to hair color and texture when it begins growing back.
Radiation is another treatment that can cause hair loss if hair is in the path of the tumor being treated. If you have a brain tumor being treated with radiation, for example, you may lose the hair on your head.
“If you do lose hair, it will regrow several weeks — or months — after treatment,” Dr. James Taylor, a radiation oncology resident at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, told SurvivorNet. “Fortunately, for most patients, hair loss is not a concern when having radiation therapy.”
The National Cancer Institute does say that “a very high dose of radiation” can cause the hair affected by treatment to grow back thinner or not at all, but it returns more often than not.
Coping with Hair Loss
Prioritizing your mental health and happiness during a cancer journey is important. And while hair loss can a difficult part of the cancer journey no matter what, it’s important to know that you’re not alone.
San Jose resident Teri Chow was 44 when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She knew she would lose her hair during chemotherapy, and she even tried to prepare her family for the change by cutting her long locks into a short bob. In a previous interview with SurvivorNet, Chow shared how she coped with her hair loss after chemotherapy treatments.
“I think it was shortly after the second round of chemo, so that would’ve been about four weeks after starting chemo, [my hair] started to fall out,” Chow said. “It was coming out in the shower [and] it was coming out just combing [my] hair.”
Some people choose to shave their heads right away so they don’t have to watch their hair fall out, but Chow decided to start wearing a wig immediately. She even looks back on that time in her life with some humor. She would often laugh because many people didn’t even realize she was wearing a wig.
“The other moms at the school didn’t realized that I was going through this, and they’d compliment me on the wig and not knowing it was wig,” Chow laughs. “I made the mistake to somebody I thought knew. I went, ‘Oh, thank you,’ And I moved the wig forward and she freaked out [and I was] like, ‘Sorry, sorry, I thought you knew!’”
Then when her hair eventually started to grow back, Chow decided to switch things up and ditch the wig. She visited a hair dresser who transformed her short, curly, gray locks into a whole new look with a straightener and some dye.
And while Chow may have handled the hair loss journey with a bit more laughter than some, it’s important to know that everyone’s experience is individual. Feeling upset over losing your hair is very common and a completely warranted emotion.
Experts tell SurvivorNet that grieving over a cancer diagnosis often represents the end of them being a “healthy person.” They encourage patients to feel through those emotions because the grief can be a crucial step to accepting the new normal and being able to push through treatment. After grieving the initial shock of hair loss, it might be easier to accept and find some positivity from there.
“I help patients acknowledge their grief so they can move on. I think the more we try to push [those feelings] away and say, ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter,’ it tends to stick around a little longer,” says Laurie Ostacher, a medical social worker at Sutter Bay Medical Foundation in the Bay Area. “If [a woman] seems like she’s having trouble moving on, we explore [that too].”