Most women begin to lose their hair 10 to 14 days after they begin treatment with chemotherapy. Experts at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., say you generally lose about 50% of your hair before the loss is noticeable to other people.
Sometimes hair loss hurts too. "The hair follicles are irritated and the scalp becomes extremely sensitive," says Andrea Cooper, 52, of Phoenix, Md., who underwent two surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, and five years on tamoxifen to overcome invasive ductal carcinoma, a form of breast cancer. "Loss of pubic hair—also somewhat emotionally traumatic for a grown woman—was also physically uncomfortable, both when it fell out and when it grew back in."
But that's just the physical part. Hair loss is an emotionally packed part of the treatment process, and how you manage it is an extremely personal decision.
Some women shave it...
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"Looking in the mirror, I saw the face of someone who had cancer"—Karen, breast cancer survivor (3:12)
Many women decide to shave their heads rather than endure the emotional stress of watching hair fall out. Taking preemptive action can be an empowering move if you're up for it. You can involve family members and loved ones in the process as a way of helping everyone come to terms with your cancer.
"Before I started chemo, I went with all my grandchildren, and they watched while I got my head shaved to a buzz cut. It made me feel like I was getting hold of the cancer and the cancer wasn't getting hold of me," explains Victoria LaRosa, 57, of Warrenton, Va. "I dropped a tear, but I was trying to be brave in front of the children. I made it fun and we went out for ice cream afterward."
Check with your local beauty parlor: They may do the cut for free if you plan on donating your strands to Locks of Love or a similar charity.
...and some let it come out on its own
7 Women Who Lost Their Hair
More about side effects of treatment
Other patients don't pick up the scissors until they've already dealt with the emotional pain of pulling out handfuls of their own hair.
"I remember pulling my hair out, literally," Cooper recalls. "Actually, my kids did it. It was a big joke to them. We were on vacation at the beach. While taking a shower outdoors, I noticed that handfuls of my hair were rinsing away with the shampoo. I sat there in the small, wooden stall in tears."
Moments later she made the decision to "get rid of it!" The whole family helped with the process, "making me look like Yoda in need of a trim," says Cooper. "Mercifully, my sister-in-law offered to shave my head, and that was truly the end of it. They all had fun at my expense, but it did take the edge off an emotionally charged event."
Here's how to manage your hair during chemo
- Go easy on your hair. Wash your hair only when necessary, and when you do, use a gentle shampoo.
- Gently pat or air-dry your hair, use a soft brush, and avoid blow dryers, irons, and other styling tools with excessive heat.
- Take a break from coloring or perming, which may weaken the hair.
- As your hair thins out, wear a scarf, hat, or sunscreen outdoors; they'll protect your scalp from sun or cold air.