As someone who works for NaturallyCurly, I'm familiar with a refrain I hear often on the topic of hair: “It’s just hair.” But we know it runs deeper than that.
For many women, our hair is intertwined with our ideas of body image and self worth, and as a result it’s a critical point of anxiety and depression among cancer patients. Body image isn’t limited to the way your body looks, but the way it feels and functions as well – all of which can be severely affected by cancer and its treatment.
Dana Dinerman, a three-time breast cancer survivor and the CEO of Hulabelle, a swimwear line for mastectomy patients, told NaturallyCurly “for me losing my hair was an emotional experience, as a woman I felt like it diminished my look. A scar from a missing breast can be hidden, yet the stares from those in public when they see you without hair can be quite troubling.”
Questions on hair loss and regrowth are among the most frequently asked for oncology treatment teams. The vast majority of people will find that their hair does grow back after chemotherapy, but there is a lot of variation in how and when the hair grows, and whether or not they lose it in the first place. We spoke with experts and chemotherapy patients to paint a well-rounded picture of what you can expect.
How does chemotherapy affect hair?
First of all, not all chemotherapies lead to hair loss. The way your hair and body react to treatment can vary from person to person, and can depend on the type of chemotherapy drugs, the dosage, and the form you receive it in. You may experience some hair loss, complete hair loss, or a change in the texture of your hair all over your body. If you don’t lose your hair, your hair may become thinner, dryer or duller.
NaturallyCurly Editor Devri Velazquez didn’t lose her hair when she underwent chemotherapy for her autoimmune disease, Takayasu's Vasculitis, although she did experience noticeable changes in her hair texture. “It didn't take long for me to notice a difference in my hair density and texture; I had relaxed and color-treated hair at the time but I had to stop the chemicals. Then, I turned to temporary hair dye and that still fried my edges. I noticed thinning in my bangs area before any other. My hair felt crispy and brittle to the touch.”
As Devri’s dosage has changed, so has her hair texture, “I still continue a once a month infusion treatment that is classified to medical professionals as chemo, although it isn't as harsh as the one I started six years ago. Now my hair is stronger, more defined, and resilient than ever, although it is still frizz-prone (which tells me it gets thirsty easily although I moisturize it daily and thoroughly).”
There are many ways you can choose to maintain your hair during this journey. For Devri, coloring her hair is an important way for her to express her personal aesthetic so she chose to switch to temporary hair dyes so she could maintain that part of her lifestyle. Holly Bertone, a breast cancer survivor, author, blogger, and the President and CEO of Pink Fortitude, LLC, told us she chose instead to cut her hair before she started chemo, “Before chemo kicked in, I donated my long, naturally curly red hair. It was tough to say goodbye, but I did it on my own terms and for a good cause.”
Holly said “When I asked my doctors what it would look like when it grew back, and how long it would take, they were not able to give me a definite answer. It might be red or gray. It might be curly or straight.” Unfortunately there is a lot of variation in the way patients react to the drug. Two people using the same dose of the same treatment may experience different results.
When will it grow back after chemotherapy?
Dr Robert Nettles MD, hair loss and regrowth expert, told NaturallyCurly “A typical timetable for hair regrowth after chemotherapy is that about 2-3 weeks after chemotherapy ends you should begin to see the first soft fuzz of hair regrowth. Within a couple of weeks after that, this fuzz starts to turn into real baby hairs and your hair will begin to grow back at normal rate. Normal rate of hair growth is approximately half an inch per month.” Again, there is some variation in how quickly everyone’s hair grows, “Some people will grow a little faster and others slower. Note that proper nutrition will also impact hair growth speed and thickness.”
A typical timetable for hair regrowth after chemotherapy is that about 2-3 weeks after chemotherapy ends you should begin to see the first soft fuzz of hair regrowth.
How will it grow back?
Dana Dinerman told me “To answer the question quite frankly, the hair comes back different than when originally lost. It does come back more wavy and curly.” To deal with the changes in hair texture, she recommends shaving the first growth “because that hair in particular is damaged from the chemo. Then when it grows it feels thicker on the head and pretty normal except for the wave or curl. It can take time and stages to grow it back, there is an awkward stage about a year after where it is in between stages of being short and a long pixie cut.” Dana is currently recouping from her third battle with breast cancer, “my hair looks like a pixie cut and feels soft and strong. No complaints except it would be nice to not have to lose it again...it is not fun especially during the winter months because it is so cold.” Holly Bertone told us that when her hair eventually grew back, "it grew back patchy, red, and curly. The red was the dark auburn from my youth, almost brown. It took around four months for it to grow an inch.”
Devri Velazquez used this time in her life to experiment with her hair in ways she never had before. “I got treatment every 4 weeks for a year, and maybe a few months into it while transitioning with a sew-in weave, I got my first big chop. My new TWA showed thicker hair than I ever had before, even as a child before my relaxed days. Now that I was natural, and felt like I could play around with wigs, headwraps, hats, and other protective styles that didn't require time or energy-consuming maintenance.”
Laura Price wrote for the Huffington Post that “Even now that my hair is almost back to the pixie-length it was cut to just before chemo, I still keep thinking it’s going to fall out and I’m constantly touching it to check it’s still there.” To track her hair growth, Laura used an app to take a photo of herself almost every day for 18 months, starting three months after her chemo ended. “I’ve spent a small fortune on products to make my hair and eyebrows grow” Laura wrote, “but I can honestly say the only thing that’s had any effect - as with most things in life - is time. The slight bald patch on the top of my head might never go away, but I’m content with what I’ve got.”
Have you undergone chemotherapy? How did it affect your hair?
If you’re willing to share your story below in the comments, we know they’ll be helpful to other community members.