Understanding Chemotherapy and Hair Loss

As manager of the Chemo/Infusion Clinic at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, I meet many new patients who experience anxiety about receiving chemotherapy. It is only natural to feel this way about treatment and potential hair loss. Patients often want to know when they will start losing their hair and why it happens.

Hair loss, also known as alopecia, occurs as a result of specific drugs used during the treatment. These drugs (doxorubicin, daunorubicin, ifosfamide) swiftly attack fast-moving hair cells, resulting in total baldness on the top of a patient’s head.

Shedding may also occur during chemotherapy. The patient may witness damaged and discolored hair, patchiness, and areas that are not as healthy as others. Many patients cut their hair short before treatment begins. This often helps them adjust when alopecia occurs.

During chemotherapy, we recommend that patients not brush their hair vigorously. We also ask them to stop using hair products containing bleach, and shampoos with menthol or alcohol. Additionally, we advise against applying gelatin to the head and the use of ice caps. Both measures are ineffective in reducing hair loss.

The Chemo/Infusion Clinic at Roswell Park houses 37 chairs for patients. The clinic is a mobile area, meaning patients can walk about the unit as their chemotherapy is administered. Prior to treatment, our clinic provides patients with education and patient mentoring to help ease anxiety.

We also connect patients with the Cancer Resource Center for Patients and Families at Roswell Park. The Cancer Resource Center is located inside the Sunflower Café in the Main Hospital. It contains a wig shop, literature, and other helpful resources. Breast cancer patients experiencing hair loss can visit the Breast Resource Center, also here at Roswell Park, to inquire about free wings, scarves and hats.

I really want to emphasize that alopecia brought about by chemotherapy is a temporary condition. Ultimately, this treatment is intended to help patients fight cancer. In fact, I often tell new patients that the most beautiful heads are bald, and a temporary lack of hair only makes it easier to see one’s inner beauty.