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Cancer Hair Loss Timeline

Posted by Emilienne Rebel on

Whilst everyone is different, there are some common basics to hair loss with chemotherapy treatments for cancer, especially the drugs for Breast Cancer. 

The healthy cells in the hair follicles that support hair growth can be affected by chemotherapy treatment.  As a result, people with cancer who are given chemotherapy may lose the hair on their heads, eyelashes, eyebrows, and elsewhere on the body.

When hair loss occurs, it usually starts within 2 weeks of treatment and continues to get worse for 1-2 months. In my case I had my first round of chemo and it was just starting to fall out as I had my second infusion 3 weeks later. I had already shaved my head in preparation. Despite my terrible memory, its always going to be a pretty distinctive as it was my youngest daughters 1st birthday. 

Does it hurt when your hair falls out? Well my personal answer to that is yes. Its the kind of hair pain you get when your hair was tied back to tightly as a child. 

Similarly, a person's hair does not start to grow back immediately after their last chemotherapy treatment. The delay is due to chemotherapy drugs taking time to leave the body and to stop attacking healthy dividing cells.

Most people receiving chemotherapy will begin seeing a limited amount of thin, fuzzy hair a few weeks after their last treatment. Real hair starts to grow properly within a month or two of the last treatment. This was certainly true for me.

A small fraction of people who are given chemotherapy may never regrow their hair. Specific drugs increase the risk of permanent hair loss. The Breast Cancer drug Docetaxel, which is sold under the brand name Taxotere, has been known to cause permanent hair loss in some people. I had this drug, but my hair has grown back.

Knowing a little bit about hair growth can help a person understand hair regrowth after chemotherapy.  All hair goes through periods of rest, during which it does not grow. Furthermore, when the hair hits a certain length or when it is pulled, it falls out. So the scalp is always shedding some hair.

This basic timeline indicates what happens after chemotherapy:

  • 2-3 weeks: Light, fuzzy hair forms.
  • 1-2 months: Thicker hair begins growing.
  • 2-3 months: An inch of hair may have grown.
  • 6 months: Some 2-3 inches of hair may have grown, covering bald patches. People with very short hair may be able to wear a previous style.
  • 12 months: The hair may have grown 4-6 inches and be long enough to brush or style.

It can take several years for hair to return to its previous style, particularly for people who once had long hair.  After chemotherapy, hair initially grows as thin fuzz. It may stick straight up or be difficult to style. Being very thin, it may also not be visible from a distance.

Some hair follicles may be in the active growth period before others. When this happens, the hair length on a person's head can vary, again, making it more difficult to style. Likewise, it may look patchy or unruly at first.

Over time, the hair will settle into a more regular growth pattern. But hair texture might be different from how it was before. Some people recovering from cancer refer to as 'chemo curls', as hair can become more brittle or unruly, curlier, or even change colour. My hair was curly before my illness and returned curlier and also had changed colour... much darker, but also with some grey.

Sometimes the change in a person's hair is short-lived. In other cases, it may be permanent. There is no way to predict whose hair will change texture after chemo or whether the change will be permanent. Doctors still do not fully understand why hair texture sometimes changes after chemo. It could be that chemo damages the genes that control hair growth, or that it changes the hair follicles.

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