Hair loss is one of the most emotional aspects of cancer. Not only is it an ongoing personal reminder of the disease, but many patients feel it’s a visible sign to others that they’re undergoing treatment. However, while distressing, hair loss is a small and temporary price to pay for a chance to regain your health.
Why does chemotherapy cause hair loss?
Chemotherapy is the medication used to kill cancer cells, but it affects other cells in the body too. Hair cells, like those of cancer, divide and grow rapidly. Chemo targets cells that multiply quickly, and doesn’t differentiate between hair and cancer cells. Since chemo is customized for each patient’s unique condition, hair loss effects vary too. They can be anything from thinning to total baldness, usually beginning two to four weeks after treatment starts and for up to a few weeks afterward. Getting your hair cut short before chemo can be less distressing than seeing longer hairs fall out.
Hair loss isn’t just on the head, but can also occur on other areas of the body like eyebrows and eyelashes. When hair first starts coming out, your scalp could feel itchy, tingly, or irritated, and extra sensitive to cold and warmth.
New hair growth typically begins a few weeks after treatment ends. It starts as peach fuzz, and within a month, real hair starts to come in at its normal rate (half an inch per month is average). New hair could have a different texture or color, but that’s usually temporary. Hair on the top of the head may grow back faster than eyebrows and eyelashes.
Whether to wear a wig or different type of head covering is a highly individual choice. There are a wide range of comfortable and fashionable hats and scarves available, many made specifically for people going through treatment. Using wigs and head coverings will not prevent or slow hair regrowth.
If you opt for a wig, there are many Central Kentucky resources with compassionate and knowledgeable people who understand how you feel and will support as well as help you.
To best match a wig to your current hair color, texture, and style, shop for it before your hair begins to fall out. Whether you want a wig that looks just like your current hair or wish to experiment with something different, it’s important to work with an expert. “Practically all wigs require some trimming and styling to get the look just right,” says Kimberly Sporing, owner/stylist of Hair by Kimberly.
“For the most flattering and natural appearance, trust a professional to fit and put the finishing touches on your wig.”
Eyebrow wigs, temporary eyebrow tattoos, and false eyelashes are available too.
Wigs can be made from human hair or synthetic materials. Most chemo patients opt for synthetic wigs because they are less costly and easier to care for than wigs made from real hair.
Proper treatment will keep your wig looking as natural and new as possible. If you want to don a wig every day, you should have several, to allow time for cleaning and drying between wears. Generally, you should wash your synthetic wig after 8-12 wears. Clean wigs gently and allow them to air dry on wig stands. Use only hair care products specially designed for synthetic wigs. Showering, swimming and sleeping in your wig can damage it and are not recommended. Synthetic wigs are flammable – don’t use heated styling tools on them.
“When shopping for a wig, we encourage customers to bring friends and family and make it a fun occasion,” says Greg Honchell, General Manager of Jerome Wigs & Beauty Boutique-Salon. “Being able to laugh and joke around makes customers feel better and less stressed. Survivorship and healing should be celebrated with those you love.”
Synthetic wigs suitable for daily wear cost around $130-$500, and real hair wigs can be thousands of dollars. Your health insurance may help cover the cost of a wig or hairpiece. If so, your doctor will need to write a prescription with a diagnosis code for a “medical hair prosthesis”, indicating that your hair loss was caused by cancer treatment.
There are many organizations that provide free wigs or discounted wigs for patients undergoing chemo. Talk to your local cancer center or oncology nurse about options available in your area. Once your hair grows back, you may choose to donate your own wig to help make another future cancer survivor look and feel terrific!
A Celebration of Survival!
If you are facing hair loss, think of it, like cancer, as a temporary condition. With or without your hair, you are the same wonderful you. Commemorate “no hair days” as a symbol of your renewed health, strength and courage!
Tips from a Survivor: Genea Arrasmith
Tell us about your wig shopping experience?
I had fun with it! I tried on several different colors and styles and made the best of a bad situation. I found wigs from 2 different places. The first was the Merle Norman shop in Richmond. They had a great selection and the staff treated me like family! The second place that I found a beautiful wig (free of charge!) was at the American Cancer Society. They had a great selection. Hair is overrated! I knew not having my hair would be temporary so I wanted to have some fun along the way
Any funny stories you want to share?
One time, my husband and I were on a ride in his convertible when a gust of wind blew my wig off! Thankfully we did have the wind screen in and so it didn’t land on the windshield of the car behind us! Another time, I took my niece shopping for cotillion. The lady at the check out said, “I really love your hair and I wish I could get mine to do that.” Much to her surprise, I handed her my hair and I replied “You can get it exactly like mine! It’s a wig.” Bless her heart, I didn’t mean to startle her but I do believe I did. She was in awe that I was as comfortable with it as I was.
What are your top 3 tips for others going through this journey?
1. Accept it. You don’t have to like it, but you need to accept it. Attitude is everything and will help you through your journey and help others going on this journey with you as well.
2. Educate yourself and be your own advocate. Do your homework so you can make an informed decision on your treatment. Only use accredited cancer websites like, KY Cancer Link or The American Cancer Society.
3. Stay positive and realize some things are just out of your control. I’ve had a lot of hardship before cancer but somehow, I ALWAYS found a silver lining. It’s not how much time we have here on Earth, it’s what we do with the time we have.