If you've treated your breast cancer with chemotherapy and lost your hair in the process, you can expect a soft fuzz to begin growing on your scalp two to three weeks after you stop treatment. The extent of hair loss depends on the type of chemo, as well as the dose, but you can generally expect to regrow an inch of hair about two months after you stop treatment, followed by a full head of hair within six months to a year.
"If regrowth is not happening that quickly, talk to your doctor about the likely causes," advises Mario Lacouture, MD, director of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center's Dermatologic Care Center at Northwestern University in Chicago. "These [causes] may include treatment-induced low levels of zinc or iron, thyroid problems, or stress."
To address these problems, Dr. Lacouture says patients should talk to their doctors about taking zinc or iron nutritional supplements, thyroid hormones, antianxiety medications, or antidepressants. Rogaine is another potential remedy; it's been shown to speed hair regrowth in breast cancer patients who have lost their hair.
When your hair grows back, you may notice changes in shade and texture. The hair may be grayer than before, and the shafts may have bands of pigmentation. The new hair can also be fragile at first. "My hair came in downright fuzzy—like duck down," says Andrea Cooper, 52, a patient advocate for the American Pain Foundation in Phoenix, Md. "It grew in patchy, brown and gray."
Melissa Graves, 40, of College Station, Texas, wasn't pleased with the way her short hair looked. It grew in curlier than it used to be, but she made do with styling products. "I had a mullet shape," she recalls. "I bought a lot of hair products and that's all I could do with it.
Celebrity hairstylist Ken Paves, whos designed looks for Jessica Simpson, Jennifer Lopez, and Celine Dion, says that once you can grasp your hair between your fingers, it's time for a trim. You may not want to part with even a fraction of an inch, but Paves points out that eliminating fuzzy or frizzy ends will help keep your hair looking healthy and give it more fullness and style.
After your hair starts growing back, you may want to consult with your oncologist and dermatologist before engaging in any chemical processing—including coloring, bleaching, and perming.
"When my hair was about 2 inches long, I decided to try to put some rinse-in color on it for a special occasion," says Cooper. "Due to some unforeseen chemical combination of chemo residue and hair dye, the final color wound up being somewhere between green and brown. My husband said my hair looked like an animal pelt!"