Hair loss (also called alopecia) can be a side effect of cancer treatment. Not all cancer treatment causes hair loss. The information provided is a guide only and does not replace the advice of health professionals at your treatment centre.
Hair growth takes place in the cells of the hair follicles (roots). Healthy hair follicles divide every one to three days, and new hair cells form and build the hair shaft in a cyclical pattern of growth and rest. Treatments that affect the rapidly dividing cancer cells also affect other rapidly dividing cells, such as the hair follicles. Ask your doctor if the drugs you are receiving are likely to cause hair loss.
Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to reduce or stop the abnormal growth of cancer cells. Not all of them cause hair loss. Chemotherapy drugs are usually given in cycles (sometimes weekly or every two or three weeks) and the amount of hair loss depends on the type of drug, the dose and the timing of treatment.
Hair loss can occur anywhere on the body including the scalp, eyebrows, eyelashes, chest, underarms, pubic area and the moustache and beard areas in men. Eyelashes and eyebrows may take longer to fall out.
Chemotherapy causes the hair to break off at or near the scalp. Shortly before the hair falls out you might feel some scalp irritation, discomfort or itchiness. You may notice hair on your pillow and sheets and when you brush or wash it. The hair may fall out over a very short period of time (days). It is common for hair loss to begin about 2–4 weeks after starting treatment.
Radiotherapy is the use of high energy x-rays to stop cancer cells from growing and multiplying. Normal cells in the path of the beam will also be affected and this can include the hair follicles.
Hair will only fall out in the area of the body being treated. For example, if you are having radiotherapy to your head you will probably lose some hair from your scalp. If the area being treated includes an armpit or your chest, then it is only hair in these regions that is likely to fall out.
Acknowledgements: The information is based on the expertise of clinicians who work in the area and consumer experience and was reviewed by: Karen Hall, Clinical Nurse, Cancer Services Division, Flinders Medical Centre SA; Joy Hills, Support Officer Cancer Council Tasmania; Frank Hughes - 13 11 20 consultant, Cancer Council Queensland; Christine Long, Team Leader, Health Professional & Education, Cancer Council Queensland; Sue Spencer, Clinical Manager Oncology, Breast Care Nurse, Western Hospital SA; Cancer Council 13 11 20 nurses; Nina Mastrangelo, Consumer SA; Clinical health professionals at Icon Cancer Care SA.