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Home » Categories » Hair Loss & Treatment

Cancer & Hair Loss: Symptoms, Prevention

Through spreading awareness, in helping others who still suffer from Trichotillomania, and may still believe they are the "only one".

"There are studies that show that for many women, losing their hair is worse than losing a breast. That's because you can conceal the loss of a breast, but hair loss is so obvious and apparent."

Marisa Weiss M.D., President and Founder, Breast Radiation Oncologist, Philadelphia, PA

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women worldwide and affects one in eight women during their lives, but thanks to improvements in treatment and early detection, millions of women are surviving breast cancer today. For many people, hair loss is a distressing aspect of cancer treatment. Losing our hair can change our sense of identify – that is, how we see ourselves and how we relate to others which, in turn, can affect our quality of life.

What is Cancer?

Cancer is a group of diseases in which abnormal body cells in one part of the body start to grow out of control.

Normal body cells grow, divide, and die in an orderly fashion. Cancer cells grow and divide without stopping. As a result, they live longer than normal cells and they keep forming new abnormal cells.

These cancer cells may join together to create a lump, mass, or tumor. Some cancers, such as leukemia, start in the blood and blood-forming organs and do not form tumors. Instead, these cancer cells circulate through other tissues where they grow.

Eventually, this uncontrolled growth damages normal cells and interferes with normal body functions. Treatments for cancer focus on stopping this growth by killing cancer cells while causing as little damage as possible to surrounding normal cells.

The Different Types of Cancer

Cancers are categorized according to their primary site, (the part of the body where the cancer started), and by the type of tissue in which the cancer began. They are then classified in stages I, II, III, or IV, with stage I being early stage and IV being advanced. The stage impacts treatment and the prognosis for recovery.

There are four major types:

  • Carcinomas start in the internal or external lining of the body. They are the most common type of cancer, accounting for about 80 to 90 percent of all cancer cases. Examples of this type of cancer are breast, colon, and lung cancer.
  • Leukemias start in the bone marrow, or soft, spongy center of the bone where blood cells are made. In most cases of leukemia, the body makes large number of white blood cells (leukocytes) that do not work properly.
  • Lymphomas start in the glands or nodes of the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is a network of vessels, nodes, and organs that purify body fluids and make lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell that fights infection.
  • Sarcomas start in supportive or connective tissue, such as the bones, tendons, cartilage, muscle, and fat.

Who Is At Risk?

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States, after heart disease, according to the American Cancer Society. Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women worldwide. Breast cancer is hormone related, and the factors that modify the risk of breast cancer when diagnosed pre-menopause and when diagnosed post-menopause are not the same. Half of all men and one-third of all women in the United States will develop cancer at some point during their lifetime. The American Cancer Society predicts that 1,529,560 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in 2010. Cancer does not discriminate. Although the risk of cancer increases as we get older, people of any age and racial or ethnic background can and do get cancer.

Symptoms of Breast Cancer

Symptoms of breast cancer may include:

  • Breast lump or lump in the armpit that is hard, has uneven edges, and usually does not hurt
  • Change in the size, shape, or feel of the breast or nipple -- for example, you may have redness, dimpling, or puckering that looks like the skin of an orange
  • Fluid coming from the nipple -- may be bloody, clear to yellow, green, and look like pus

Men get breast cancer, too. Symptoms include breast lump, breast pain and tenderness.

Symptoms of advanced breast cancer may include:

  • Bone pain
  • Breast pain or discomfort
  • Skin Ulcers
  • Swelling of one arm (next to breast with cancer)
  • Weight Loss


Cancer is treated by an Oncologist. Oncologists are physician specialists who study, diagnose, and treat cancerous tumors.

Typical Cancer Treatments may include:

  • Chemotherapy medicines to kill cancer cells
  • Radiation therapy to destroy cancerous tissue
  • Surgery to remove cancerous tissue -- a lumpectomy removes the breast lump; mastectomy removes all or part of the breast and possible nearby structures
  • Hormonal therapy to block certain hormones that fuel cancer growth
  • Targeted therapy to interfere with cancer cell growth and function

How, When, & Why Hair Loss Occurs

No matter how prepared and well informed, facing chemo hair loss can be difficult and embarrassing - adding to a very difficult life challenge. Marisa Weiss M.D., President and Founder, Breast Radiation Oncologist, Philadelphia, PA shares; "There are studies that show that for many women, losing their hair is worse than losing a breast. That's because you can conceal the loss of a breast, but hair loss is so obvious and apparent."

Hair loss occurs during the use of radiation, chemotherapy, and hormonal treatments used to treat cancer.

Hormonal treatments usually cause thinning.

Radiation sometimes causes permanent hair loss, but only the hair that is in the area of radiation will be affected.

With chemotherapy treatments, hair loss occurs because chemotherapy targets all rapidly dividing cells—healthy cells as well as cancer cells.

Normal hair follicles divide every 23 to 72 hours, but as the chemo works against cancer cells, it also destroys hair cells. Within seven to twenty one days of starting chemo, hair loss may start to occur. The extent of hair loss depends on which drugs or other treatments are used, and for how long. Also, the timing and dosage amounts of treatments will determine whether hair loss will be gradual or dramatic.

The various classes of chemotherapy drugs all produce different reactions. Some chemotherapy drugs affect only the scalp hair. Others cause the loss of all body hair. While some of the newer, more targeted chemotherapy drugs will not affect hair, the majority do cause hair loss.

Unfortunately, nothing can prevent it. It's an unfortunate side effect of chemotherapy that just about everyone undergoing chemo goes through. Hair may gradually thin before completely lost, or may be lost all at once.

To prepare emotionally for the change, most patients have their hair cut or shaved before they start chemotherapy. Until their hair grows back, some people choose to wear a wig or hairpiece, which insurance usually covers. Women sometimes wear scarves and others prefer the natural look, as an expression of their battle with cancer. Thankfully, hair loss is temporary. After chemotherapy, hair does grow back, often within a few weeks of completing treatment.

It is also advised to seek emotional support by talking to others who have experienced hair loss, or to professionals with experience with the matter.

Hormonal treatments usually cause thinning.

  • Connect with a friend or another patient who is empathetic and call this person when feeling down or uncertain.
  • Join a support group for mutual support, to receive helpful guidance, and to share valuable tips with others.
  • See a Counselor or Oncology Social Worker who can assist in finding resources to help with difficult decision-making.

Growing Hair Back After Treatment

For hair growth after chemo, stimulation of the hair follicles, accelerating blood flow and nutrients is essential to hair growth and restoring healthy hair. Hair care products formulated to restore natural hair re-growth can help combat the effects of chemo and restore natural, healthy hair."

  • Follicle Stimulators - Follicle Stimulators are topical applications rich in Trichogen and scalp nutrients, which are clinically proven ingredients to promote faster hair growth and invigorate new hair re-growth. Trichogen stimulates blood flow, aids in blocking DHT, and has been shown to work in over 88% of tested subjects.
  • DHT Blockers - Though not a direct hair stimulant, DHT blockers are formulated to block DHT (Dihydrotestosterone) which often is a function of hormonal changes - common in chemotherapy or hormonal therapy. DHT blockers use natural ingredients that help to block the 5 alpha reductase enzyme that must be present for DHT to form. Because the hair has been mal-nourished and needs a boost of nutrients, it is important to note that both blocking the enzyme and adding extreme amounts of vitamins and aminos to your diet is essential. Scalp stimulation is also important to re-establish blood supply.
  • Hair Vitamins - Chemo generally strips vital nutrients. Vitamins, nutrients, minerals, and amino acid compounds help promote healthy hair growth. Amino acids build protein chains in the hair shaft. As your hair grows up and out of the scalp it is reproducing rapidly and making these protein chains. By giving your body more of the amino acids, hair grows faster and healthier. B Group vitamins get your hair growing faster and minerals form the bonds in the hair. Until hair grows back, keep the scalp moisturized to help skin feel more comfortable and itch less.

As hair begins to grow back after chemotherapy, it will initially have a different texture. New hair might feel finer and have a thin texture. Curly hair can grow back straight or straight hair may be curlier than before, and dark hair can grow back lighter, even gray. This is because the pigment cells have yet to revert back to normal. These changes are usually not permanent and within six months to twelve months, the hair will have returned to its normal texture, thickness and color. To ensure proper care of fragile, newly grown tresses, gently follow the guidelines outlined below.

  • Shampoo
    Wash hair gently. The American Hair Loss Council (AHLC) advises restricting shampooing to twice a week. Use a shampoo formulated for damaged or dry hair, followed up with a conditioner formulated for thin or fine hair. Massage scalp gently to loosen up dead skin cells.
  • Remove Excess Water
    Avoid towel drying! According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), vigorous rubbing can damage healthy hair, as the hair is more vulnerable when it's wet. Wrap the hair in a towel and allow it absorb the water.
  • Dry Hair
    Allow hair to air dry. The heat from a blow dryer can damage new hair growth as well as healthy hair, says the AHLC. The AAD advises limiting use of blow dyers and other heated styling tools in general. Only introduce the blow dryer again after hair has regained its strength and waiting until hair is barely damp to use it.
  • Avoid Chemicals
    Avoid chemical processing for the first six months, advises This includes use of hair dye, bleach, permanent waves and straightening treatments. The AAD again points out that these harsh treatments are damaging to healthy hair as well, causing strands to become dry and brittle. If you eventually choose to chemically process your new hair, use these treatments on a limited basis.
  • Limit Styling Tools
    Keep styling to a minimum. The AHLC points out that the scalp will be tender after chemotherapy. Avoid using heated styling tools such as curling irons and flat irons. Use a wide tooth comb. Limit brushing and combing, and the use of hair pins and curlers. Styling products with a light hold may be used in moderation, says the AHLC. Moderation is stressed as shampooing is less frequent, therefore, buildup can occur on the hair and scalp.

Prevention ~ Reducing the Risk of Breast Cancer

Risk factors such as genes and family history cannot be controlled. However, a healthy diet and a few lifestyle changes may reduce your overall chance of cancer.

Examples of healthy lifestyle changes are ~

  • Limit alcohol
    Based on studies, women who consume 2 to 5 drinks daily have about 1½ times the risk of women who do not consume alcohol.
  • Stay physcially active
    Studies by the Women's Health Initiative found that women who walked briskly 1.25 to 2.5 hours per week reduced a woman's breast cancer risk by 18%. The American Cancer Society recommends exercising 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week for cancer prevention. Some recommended examples of "exercise" to reduce the risk of cancer are walking, yoga, dancing, rollerblading, Tai Chi, softball, volleyball, soccer, hiking swimming, cycling, and dodge ball.
  • Don't smoke
    Although there has not been a direct link between smoking and breast cancer, studies suggest that smoking at an early age can increase a woman's risk. Not only can it be a risk for breast cancer, smoking is a definite risk factor for lung cancer.
  • Limit fat intake
    A diet low in fat not only decreases the risk of obesity, it can reduce your risk of breast cancer. Estrogen plays a major role in the development of breast cancer. Fat tissue contains small amounts of estrogen and may increase your risk. There have been conflicting studies about fat intake and breast cancer risk, however all studies have concluded that obesity plays a big part in breast cancer development.
  • Eat healthy
    Cancer-promoting foods are typically rich in refined sugars, processed carbohydrates, preservatives and byproducts of deep-frying. Read more here. Healthy eating guidelines are intended to promote overall health while reducing the risk of developing nutrition-related diseases like cancer and heart disease. Healthy eating guidelines from around the world can be found here. For safety concerns, check with your local health/food inspection agencies.

Combining risk-reducing habits with limiting exposure to substances that promote the disease will be even more beneficial.

The following are additional things to consider to minimize the risk factor ~

  • Have children earlier in life, if possible
    Having no children or having a first child in the mid-thirties or later increases the risk of breast cancer.
  • Consider Breastfeeding Instead of Formula Feeding.
    Researchers believe that the months without a period during pregnancy and breast feeding may reduce a woman's risk of breast cancer. This accompanies the data that suggests that early menopause lowers the risk factor, as well.
  • Birth Control Pills and Breast Cancer Prevention
    There's no evidence across-the-board of a link between birth control pill use and breast cancer risk. Analysis of combined data from many older studies suggests a slight increase in risk of premenopausal breast cancer in women who took the pill for four or more years before their first full-term pregnancy. However, the pills used in these studies contained higher estrogen doses than what is available and prescribed today. Experts analyzing all the risk data estimate that birth control pill use causes, at most, 4.7 out of 10,000 cases of premenopausal breast cancer.
  • Hormone Therapy: Long-term use may undermine breast cancer prevention
    Study results from the Women's Health Initiative (WHI) raised concerns about the use of hormone therapy for symptoms of menopause. Among other problems, long-term treatment with estrogen-progestin combinations, such as those found in the drug Prempro, increased the risk of breast cancer in women who participated in the trial. Consider talking with a doctor about discontinuing long-term hormone therapy or exploring other options. Menopausal symptoms may be managed with exercise, dietary changes or non-hormonal therapies that have been shown to provide some relief. If none of these is effective and the benefits of short-term hormone therapy outweigh the risks, consider using the lowest dose of hormone therapy that's effective for symptom relief, and plan on using it only temporarily verses long term.
  • Use Pesticides and Antibiotics with CautionResearch isn't conclusive, but Breast cancer may be linked to both pesticide exposure and overuse of antibiotics. Until further studies are conducted and more is known about these possible links, be aware of how these substances might counterbalance your efforts at breast cancer prevention.

Exposure to Pesticides

The molecular structure of some pesticides closely resembles that of estrogen. This means they may attach to estrogen receptor sites in the body. Although studies haven't found a definite link between most pesticides and breast cancer, researchers have learned that women with elevated levels of pesticides in their breast tissue have a greater breast cancer risk.

Unnecessary Antibiotics

Scientists recently found a link between antibiotic use and breast cancer — the longer antibiotics were used, the greater the risk of breast cancer. Researchers caution, however, that other factors, such as underlying illness or a weakened immune system, rather than antibiotics themselves, may account for the elevated cancer risk.

In addition to lifestyle changes, be vigilant about early detection of breast cancer. Breast cancer is more easily treated and often curable if it is found early.

Early detection involves ~

  • Breast self-exams
  • Clinical breast exams by a medical professional
  • Screening mammography
  1. Women age 20 and older should examine their breasts once a month during the week following the menstrual period.
  2. Women between the ages 20 and 39 should have a doctor examine their breasts at least once every 3 years.
  3. Women 40 and older should have a complete breast exam by a health care provider every year and a mammogram every 1 - 2 years, depending on their risk factors. Mammography is the most effective way of detecting breast cancer early.

Certain women at high risk for breast cancer may have a breast MRI along with their yearly mammogram. Additionally, the drug Tamoxifen is approved for breast cancer prevention in women aged 35 and older who are at high risk. Reading and researching will help in having an informed discussion with a doctor. Depending on family history and other risk factors, the physician will determine the appropriate screening procedure to detect breast cancer.

Women at very high risk for breast cancer may consider preventive (prophylactic) mastectomy, which is the surgical removal of the breasts. Possible candidates for this procedure may include those who have already had one breast removed due to cancer, women with a strong family history of breast cancer, and persons with genes or genetic mutations that raise their risk of breast cancer.

When to consult a doctor ~

  • Women should call their doctor immediately if they notice any change in their breasts such as a new breast or armpit lump or skin changes.
  • Women over the age 35 or older that have a mother or sister with breast cancer, or have already had cancer of the breast, uterus, ovary, or colon.
  • Women who do not know how or need help learning how to perform a breast self-examination.

Nothing can guarantee that life will be cancer-free. But practicing healthy habits and consulting a doctor about practical extra measures to take may at least reduce the risk of this potentially fatal disease. Stay informed. Spread awareness and routinely screen!

Article written by Felicia Wills

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