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Hair Loss and Breast Cancer: Causes and Solutions

Updated on December 01, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Mark Levin, M.D.
Article written by
Sarah Winfrey

Losing hair due to breast cancer treatment is difficult for many people with the condition. The hair loss that sometimes accompanies treatments for cancer can be shocking and emotionally draining. This outward change may draw unwanted attention and lead to feelings of isolation.

The more you know about cancer-related hair loss, the better prepared you can be. Here is what you should know about hair loss (alopecia) in breast cancer — what it’s like, what causes it, and how you can handle or minimize hair loss.

What Is It Like To Lose Your Hair With Breast Cancer?

Many people diagnosed with breast cancer experience hair loss as a side effect of their cancer treatments. This change can cause a range of difficult emotions.

Some people experience anxiety surrounding hair loss. As one MyBCTeam member asked, “What did any of you do before learning that you would lose your hair? It is nerve-wracking, and I’m a little anxious about the thought.”

Another shared, “I had the best hair in the family by far and also had gone into the hairdressing field — it seemed a big slap of humility for me to be the one struggling with hair loss.”

Others find hair loss to be an incredibly challenging aspect of breast cancer. “Hair loss was the scariest thing for me,” wrote one member, “and it’s very traumatic, but once you lose your hair and either wear a wig or just go bald, once you embrace it, it’s so much easier. Many prayers, because this part is hard!”

Another shared, “I agree that the hair loss was the hardest for me as well. I cried for three days watching it fall out in clumps and having to clear the drain every morning before I went to work.”

Some individuals struggle to deal with the trauma they felt at losing their hair months or even years after the fact. One member spoke about her hair loss even after her treatment was over and her hair had grown back: “I was, and still am, devastated by the hair loss.”

The strong emotions regarding hair loss often come as a surprise, even for those who feel prepared for this change. One member put it this way: “It is surprising how hard the hair loss is. Especially after all the tests, biopsies, blood draws, port placement, etc., etc. This has been the hardest thing to deal with (other than the original diagnosis).”

Hair loss can cause a wide variety of emotions, and it’s also difficult because it can act as a constant reminder to you and those around you of your cancer diagnosis. One member explained her experience: “I am ashamed to admit I cried when I got into the shower. I think it’s because when you lose your hair and look into the mirror, it is a neon sign for the world to see that you have cancer.”

Why Do People Lose Their Hair With Breast Cancer?

Hair loss after a breast cancer diagnosis usually occurs because of a treatment for breast cancer. Although hair loss most commonly happens during chemotherapy, it can also happen with:

  • Radiation therapy (radiotherapy)
  • Hormonal therapy
  • Immunotherapy
  • Targeted therapy

Chemotherapy targets cells that replicate and grow rapidly. Cancer cells fall into this category, but so do hair cells. Because of this, chemotherapy drugs kill cancerous cells and hair cells, leading to hair loss. Hair loss caused by chemotherapy usually stops after it is completed, and the hair grows back. It may be a different texture and color, and in some cases, it does not grow back as thick as before.

Other types of breast cancer treatment cause hair loss for similar reasons. Some only cause hair thinning, which you may not even notice. Others may cause hair to fall out quickly in large clumps. Note that although hair loss on the scalp is a common side effect of treatment, body hair loss (such as eyelashes, eyebrows, and pubic hair) can also occur.

How To Deal With Hair Loss Associated With Breast Cancer

There are a few things you can do to deal with hair loss and the difficult emotions that can come along with it.

Expect To Have Feelings About Hair Loss

It is a good idea to go into treatment with the acknowledgment that hair loss may occur. Know that this can result in many different feelings, from anger, sadness, and frustration to lowered self-confidence. By preparing yourself for the different emotions that come with hair loss, you may find the process is easier than you thought.

One member explained it this way: “Everyone feels differently about losing their hair. Quite honestly, for me, the anticipation of losing my hair was more traumatic and stressful than actually losing my hair. But that was me.”

Cut Your Hair

Some people feel that maintaining a sense of control over their hair loss makes them feel better. Many do this by cutting their hair short or even shaving it off before it starts to fall out.

One of MyBCTeam member shared, “When I started to lose my hair, my son shaved it off. It made me feel more in control. I would do it that way again.”

Another explained that she “did choose to cut it to a very short bob before starting chemo. For me, it was simply a step of having control and a chance for a fun, new haircut before I would eventually lose it all.”

If taking all of your hair off at once is too hard, you can take it slowly. One member described the process she took to cutting her hair: “So, I shaved my head really short last night, but not bald yet. It’s my third haircut since having my hair long. I’m taking baby steps for my emotions.”

Cutting your hair off can be a relief, rather than waiting for impending hair loss to happen. A member put it like this: “For me, the hair loss was tough too, but once I shaved my head, it was actually a very freeing feeling!”

Get a Wig (or Two!)

Getting a wig (or a scarf, hat, or other head covering that you love) can help you feel more confident when dealing with hair loss. Many MyBCTeam members love this plan. “I got a wig before I lost my hair,” wrote one member.

Another explained, “I’m meeting with a wig lady next week. I’m trying to be prepared, so it’s not a shocker.”

You may even find that you enjoy being able to change your look whenever you want to. As one member explained, “I’ve grown to LOVE my wigs.”

Maintain a Positive Attitude

Many MyBCTeam members try to keep a positive attitude when it comes to facing hair loss. They know that losing their hair means they are fighting their cancer, and they embrace their beauty in all stages of treatment.

One member wrote to another, “Just know that no matter what, who you are as an amazing woman and human being has nothing to do with your hair. You are going to be exactly as beautiful, smart, and strong when the last hair falls out as you are this very minute.”

Another told her friends on MyBCTeam that “The rest of my hair fell out yesterday! No hair, don’t care! I’m embracing my baldness!”

Yet another member reminded everyone that hair is not necessary to look good or feel beautiful: “My hair is going faster than I thought, but it’s OK. I’m cute with or without my hair.”

Prevent Hair Loss Associated With Breast Cancer

Although there is no guarantee that you can prevent hair loss while undergoing treatment for breast cancer, there are solutions that work for some people. You’ll need to talk to your doctor, oncology team, or cancer care specialist to determine which (if any) of these options are right for you.

Try a Scalp-Cooling Cap

A cooling cap is just what it sounds like: a cap you wear on your head that cools down your scalp. This seems to decrease the amount of chemotherapy drug that builds up in hair follicles, limiting the hair loss you experience.

One MyBCTeam member had great success with a scalp cooling system: “I did the cooling cap, and my hair held up. I’m so happy that I had the opportunity to use the cold cap.”

Hair Growth Drugs

Rogaine is a hair growth cream with minoxidil as its active ingredient. There have been promising studies showing that this drug can help limit the effects of chemo on the hair. One such study looked at women with breast cancer who experienced hair loss as a result of endocrine therapy. According to the study, treatment with topical minoxidil improved hair loss (alopecia) in 80 percent of those participating.

Despite the apparent success of this study, the use of Rogaine in cancer-induced hair loss is controversial. One MyBCTeam member explained her experience: “My dermatologist told me to use Rogaine. Rogaine said that it’s only helpful with hereditary baldness. The hair loss specialist I went to said not to use Rogaine.”

Make sure you and your health care provider are certain that Rogaine is a good choice for you before you use it.

Additional Medications and Supplements

Many other medications may be useful in preventing or limiting hair loss. Vitamin C, 5 alpha-reductase, omega-3s, and the CDK4/6 inhibitor palbociclib may be helpful, depending on which chemotherapy treatment you are on. Ask your oncologist if there are any new treatments or clinical trials for treatments that might help mitigate or eliminate hair loss if you are interested in trying them.

Find Your Support Team Today!

If you are facing hair loss associated with a breast cancer diagnosis, reach out today. MyBCTeam offers a social network exclusively for those diagnosed with breast cancer, breast cancer survivors, and those who love and care for them.

Reach out today to ask your questions, request support, share your story, or join ongoing conversations. Before long, you’ll be connected with a group from around the world who will support you on your journey with breast cancer.

A MyBCTeam Member said:

Feel sorry for him. He probably cant handle anything in.life🤫

posted 7 days ago

hug

Mark Levin, M.D. is a hematology and oncology specialist with over 37 years of experience in internal medicine. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Sarah Winfrey is a writer at MyHealthTeams. Learn more about her here.

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