Whilst it is well known that cancer treatment can cause hair loss, often advice and information on this tends to relate to those undergoing chemotherapy.
Although chemotherapy can cause hair loss, it is often less severe than that which is caused by another common form of cancer treatment: radiotherapy.
Whilst not everyone will lose their hair to chemo, some hair loss is a certainty for people whose treatment involves head and/or neck radiotherapy.
Radiotherapy patients do not have the option of wearing cold caps - a scalp cooling device which can be used during certain types of chemotherapy as a form of hair loss prevention. Their hair loss can also be permanent, unlike many chemo patients.
The reason for this is that the radiation used to treat the cancer can also destroy any hair follicles it comes into contact with. Permanent baldness occurs once the follicles no longer function - a condition known as cicatricial alopecia - though whether or not this happens tends to depend on the dosage and duration of the radiotherapy. Although currently this type of hairloss does not have any effective methods of non-surgical treatment, research into potential treatments is underway.
In cases where the follicles have not disintegrated, the hair often grows back, though it may take a number of growth cycles in order for it to return to its original state. Just as with cases of hair loss from the autoimmune condition Alopecia Areata, once the hair does grow back it may be thinner than before and can appear creamy or white in colour due to a lack of pigmentation. Straight hair may grow back curly and regrowth may be patchy. Certain radiotherapy courses can also cause permanent beard hair loss for some men.
As one of the largest charities in this area Cancer Research UK has lots of advice on the subject. The charity, which helped to bring about the smoking ban in the UK, explains: "If you are having treatment to a particular part of your head or neck, your hair only falls out in that area. You might also have some hair loss on the opposite side of the head or neck, where the radiotherapy beams pass through. This is called the exit site."
Whether it is a couple of small bald spots or total baldness, there is support available for cancer patients dealing with hair loss - a symptom frequently cited by patients as one of the most overwhelming. Cancer Research UK has lots of helpful advice for every stage of the treatment process on its website. For example:
Preparing for radiotherapy: "You might want to cut your hair short before the treatment starts. This may make the change less noticeable and easier to cope with. But speak to your doctor beforehand to check on how much hair you might lose."
During treatment: "...you need to wash your hair carefully so that you don't make the area sore. Use warm or cool water. Be gentle and use a non perfumed shampoo or baby shampoo only. It is best not to use a hair dryer but to gently dry your hair with a soft towel. Or you can let your hair dry naturally. If the skin gets sore let your radiographer know and they will advise you on how to care for your skin."
During and following treatment: "You might like to cover your head with a soft hat or scarf to protect the exposed skin and keep your head warm." There are also support groups dedicated to showing people how to acquire and use head wraps and coverings across the UK.
If you are concerned about hair loss following radiotherapy, speak to your oncologist as your first port of call. They will be able to advise you as to the likelihood of natural regrowth and, if you would like to explore professional hair loss treatment, they can provide you with a letter of recommendation. Whilst cicatricial alopecia cannot be treated, a specialist hair loss clinic will be able to offer advice on the prospects of hair growth and, if appropriate, can suggest custom treatment courses accordingly if the follicles are still functioning.
The Belgravia Centre is a world-renowned group of a hair loss clinic in Central London, UK. If you are worried about hair loss you can arrange a free consultation with a hair loss expert or complete our Online Consultation from anywhere in the world for home-use treatment.
View our Hair Loss Success Stories, which includes the world's largest gallery of hair growth photos and demonstrates the level of success that so many of Belgravia's patients achieve.