How to Cope with Hair Loss During Cancer Journey
- ‘Today Show’ host Jill Martin Brooks, 47, is battling stage 2 breast cancer, and she’s navigating her emotions surrounding hair loss during treatment.
- Chemotherapy and radiation therapy can cause hair loss. It usually begins about three to four weeks after chemotherapy and continues throughout treatment. Most people can expect regrowth four to six weeks after treatment.
- If losing your hair is a concern for you before cancer treatment, know you have options like wigs, hats, wraps, and scarves, among other things, to maintain your self-esteem.
- Scalp cooling devices such as the one Brooks uses constrict the blood flow to the scalp; the caps limit the amount of circulating chemotherapy that reaches the hair follicles, protecting them from some of the chemo’s damaging effects.
- Patients are encouraged to seek a support group and talk to a mental health professional if they are experiencing anxiety surrounding hair loss, according to psychiatrist Dr. Lori Plutchik.
Hair loss is a common side effect of chemotherapy, but it is also one of the most difficult to endure. Luckily, like Brooks, who uses a cold cap for hair preservation amid treatment, options exist to help you through this challenging period.
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Martin thanked her New York salon hairdressers for helping her maintain her hair during cancer treatment.
“A hairdryer can’t go anywhere near my head. Cold capping is not easy, but for me, it has been worth it. 4 chemo down…4 to go,” Martin wrote in an Instagram post.
Brooks is often seen doing segments on the “Today” show showcasing steals and deals, but behind the scenes, she is in the midst of an arduous cancer journey, and preserving her hair has been a bright spot for her even during her most challenging days.
“For me, my hair’s always been something that’s made me feel like myself,” Brooks said on the “Today Show,” according to People. She added that although she’s been able to preserve some of her hair, she has still lost “about 30 percent” due to chemotherapy.
Helping You Cope with Hair Loss During Treatment
Jill’s Cancer Journey
The brave and resilient journalist was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer last year. Her diagnosis came shortly after she underwent genetic testing and learned she carried the BRCA gene mutation, which increased her chance of developing cancer, including breast and ovarian.
After Brooks learned she carried the BRCA gene, she planned to get a preventative mastectomy to minimize her cancer risk. The procedure Brooks attempted to pursue is a prophylactic or preventive mastectomy, which removes breast tissue to prevent cancer from developing. This procedure is an option for women at higher risk, such as Brooks, who carried the BRCA gene mutation.
Brooks’ treatment involved a double mastectomy (removal of both breasts), and she had 17 lymph nodes removed. She said she still has more treatment ahead of her with a hysterectomy to reduce her ovarian cancer risk further.
Brooks is still journeying through aggressive chemotherapy, which comes with side effects such as nausea, vomiting, and alopecia (hair loss). Your doctor can offer you some remedies to help manage the side effects. For nausea, doctors will usually prescribe effective medications to help.
“We have many, many, many medications that we give before, during, and after chemotherapy that should minimize the nausea that patients experience,” Dr. Matthew Carlson, a gynecologic oncologist at UT Southwestern Medical Center, explains to SurvivorNet. He adds that there are also quite a few medications available for constipation and diarrhea. However, doctors may recommend dietary modifications first.
Coping With Hair Loss from Cancer Treatment
Hair loss can be an emotional stage of anyone’s cancer journey. SurvivorNet has tips and resources for anyone facing this side effect and struggling to manage it.
“For cancer patients, losing one’s hair can be unbelievably stressful. To start with, the dread of losing one’s hair can lead to some sleepless nights and feelings of anxiety,” Dr. Samantha Boardman, a New York-based psychiatrist and author, told SurvivorNet.
Chemotherapy can cause hair loss. It usually begins about three to four weeks after chemotherapy and continues throughout treatment.
WATCH: Hair loss during chemo.
It happens because this treatment targets quickly dividing cells throughout the body. That includes cancer cells but also hair cells.
Radiation is another treatment that can lead to hair loss if the hair is in the path of the tumor being treated. For example, radiation for a brain tumor may cause hair loss on the head.
“Fortunately, for most patients, hair loss is not a concern when having radiation therapy.”
Most patients can expect regrowth four to six weeks after treatment. However, it is possible when your hair grows back, you may notice some changes in its color and texture.
Dr. Boardman suggests connecting with others experiencing cancer treatment like yours and asking them for first-hand advice.
“Talk to people who have been through it, get their advice, voice your concerns to your caregiver, and see what they can do,” Dr. Boardman added.
If losing your hair is a concern for you before cancer treatment, know you have options like wigs, hats, wraps, and more.
Understanding Scalp Cooling Devices
Brooks’ wears a cold cap during infusions to help protect her hair follicles. Scalp-cooling devices have been approved by the FDA recently, first for breast cancer and then several other cancers.
That means wearing cold caps or special cooling caps before, during, and after each chemotherapy treatment.
The caps, which are tightly fitting and strap-on helmet-style, are filled with a gel coolant that’s chilled to between -15 to -40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Essentially, the caps “cause vasoconstriction, or a narrowing of the blood vessels bringing blood to the scalp,” Dr. Renata Urban, gynecologic oncologist at the University of Washington, explains.
By constricting the blood flow to the scalp, the caps limit the circulating chemotherapy that reaches the hair follicles, protecting them from some of the chemo’s damaging effects.
The cold also decreases the activity of the hair follicles, which slows down cell division and makes the follicles less affected by the chemotherapy medicine.
WATCH: What is a scalp-cooling device?
Dr. Julia Nangia, a medical oncologist at Baylor College of Medicine and a lead author on one of the major studies of the device, says 50% of women were able to keep their hair after four rounds of chemotherapy, and added: “Without the devices, 100% of patients lost their hair.”
There have been some safety questions when it comes to scalp-cooling, but Dr. Nangia says that when given to people with solid tumors (like breast, ovarian, colon, and lung cancer), the devices are safe.
Questions to Ask Your Doctor
If you’re going through cancer treatment and experiencing hair loss, here are some questions you may consider asking your doctor:
- Are there any treatments to help manage or minimize my hair loss?
- What are scalp-cooling devices, and how do they work?
- Do you recommend scalp-cooling devices?
- What other options are available to help me cope with hair loss?
- Can you recommend a wig maker?
- I’m struggling mentally with my hair loss; can you recommend a therapist to talk to?
- How can I find a local support group with people going through similar things?