"It's only hair!" - Why hair loss IS traumatic and what you can do to take back some control.

Hair loss is one of most infamous side effects of chemo and whole brain radiotherapy. Up to 8% of people diagnosed with cancer will refuse treatment due to hair loss. In addition, in qualitative studies, hair loss is often seen as one of the most stressful and traumatic side effects of treatment.

There are many reasons for this, and we hope by discussing them we are able to provide you with helpful tips and advice to getting back some control.

The underlying cause of hair loss:

Having a cancer diagnosis can be stressful enough without the ongoing reminder of your diagnosis and treatment. It can also be an admission that you’re not at your fullest health, which can also be quite stressful. Being seen as 'sick' can lead to a feeling of loss of control and changes in relationships, which can be difficult to do or accept.

What you can do:

Low mood is a common side effect among cancer patients. But unmanaged and ongoing low mood can lead to poor appetite, restlessness and difficulty sleeping. If you find that you are feeling down or lacklustre, it is important that you speak to a professional such as a counsellor or psychologist.

For those wanting additional support, some people seek solace in others that have gone through a similar diagnosis or experience. Online forums such as Health Unlocked or Patients Like Me can connect you with others who have the same or similar diagnosis and treatment options. You are not obliged to post or discuss anything; many people find simply reading other people's experiences and responses very reassuring.

Self-esteem:

Hair in many cultures is a symbol of femininity and beauty, especially in females. For men, balding is linked to ageing and a loss of youth. With the world's views of hair as such, losing your hair can be a blow to your self-esteem. Even if others compliment you, it can take a lot to feel confident with your new look.

Lack of confidence and poor self-esteem is a normal and common response to hair loss, and it is ok to feel this way. Many people who haven’t experienced hair loss may say unhelpful comments such as “It’s only hair!” or “you look great bald!” and although they are trying to help, can miss the mark.

What can you do:

There are many clinics that specialise in helping you feel better with hair loss. They are usually called “Look good, feel better” and often are free to attend. It can take a bit of effort and confidence to go to your first one, but just leaving the house is often the hardest part.

Make-up stores such as Sephora in the U.S and Boots in the U.K also have make-up tutorials and classes for people undergoing cancer treatment. Many people do find that finding a new lipstick or showing how to draw on eyebrows can make a huge difference in confidence levels and outlook.

Shock to the system:

Hair loss can occur quickly for some people. It can take a while to get use to hair loss (for many they never get use to it), and other people’s reactions can be off-putting if you suddenly lose a lot, or all, of your hair.

What can you do:

Predicting hair loss is difficult. Although healthcare professionals know which chemos are more likely to cause hair loss, the extent and rate of loss can be hard to guess. For those holding onto their hair, it can end up being more traumatic losing it.

Some people suggest cutting your hair in stages before or during treatment to get yourself and your loved ones use to you with short hair. This is particularly effective if you have young children. Another practical idea is finding a wig, taking it to your favourite hairdresser and getting them to cut and style it (and even dye it), to resemble your natural hair.

Loss of control:

Cancer diagnosis and treatment can often mean giving up control of your health and body and putting it in the hands of healthcare professionals. It can be very difficult to come to terms with a loss of control, even if you have the ability to choose your treatment and other aspects of care. There is some evidence that suggests that loss of control and loss of hair can have the same grief response as someone grieving for a loved one.

What can you do:

Take your time choosing what type of hat, or wig you wish to wear, and if you even want to wear one. Make the decision 100% yours, and don’t feel like you need to settle with how the end result looks. Purposefully choosing how you cover your head, can give you a small sense of empowerment, as well as help cope with your new look for during treatment. Yes, many people choose not to wear a hat or wig, and for them, that is the right decision. For others they choose to buy multiple options, so they have the choice when they wake up in the morning.

There is a lot of evidence that shows that hair loss is stressful. But small, little changes can help rebuild confidence and self-esteem. Talking to others, professionals or those with a similar experience can also provide reassurance.

Comments

  1. Ann Thorley on

    I didn't have chemo but Radiotherapy. I have been taking Anastrozole for 2.5 years post op and my hair loss has increased considerably. I have now stopped the medication (after discussion with my Oncologist) in the hope that my hair will grow back. I also take a supplement Suisse. Has anyone else had the same experience and how did they cope with it?

  2. Katrine Miles on

    Though my hair was baby soft + fine before Chemo it covered my heard. A couple years on it never came back and now it's embarrassingly thin + scrappy. Balding actually. It's quite upsetting. Especially with my daughter's wedding approaching in August. If anyone has any suggestions please share. Thank you.

  3. Julia Liddle on

    I lost my hair gradually, looking like a rabid dog. Also I look like I am 20 years older. Both of these have been very difficult to me. I have purchased some turbans in various colors and a beautiful wig, and do not go out without something covering my head. But I still feel bad about this situation, especially since my hair has started to grow again and now need more chemo, so will probably lose that as well. Plus, from surgery and generally feeling pretty awful, my face is showing it all.

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