Why Does Cancer Cause Hair Loss?

Cancer-related hair loss is one of the most well-known types.

It’s an incredibly difficult and unpleasant topic to discuss, but there are ways to reduce the amount of hair shed during treatment.

In this post, we’ll cover:

  • What is cancer?
  • Common types of cancer
  • Why cancer causes hair loss
  • What options are available if you’re affected by cancer-related hair loss?

What is cancer?

Cancer is a terrifying condition causing cells in one or more areas of the body to grow and reproduce at an uncontrollable rate.

Cancerous cells destroy surrounding tissue and organs, inflicting various degrees of damage.

Approximately 367,000 new cancer cases are reported each year in the UK alone.

Fortunately, cancer survival continues to improve, and actually doubled in the UK in the past four decades.

Half of the people diagnosed across England and Wales survive for at least 10 years.

Common symptoms of cancer include:

  • Pain that doesn’t ease with standard treatment
  • Fever lasting more than a few days
  • Sores which won’t heal
  • Changes to the skin (moles, marks, or bumps)
  • Persistent fatigue regardless of rest
  • Persistent cough
  • Unexpected or unusual bleeding
  • Anaemia

Common types of cancer

There are more than 200 forms of cancer, but the most common in the UK are:

  • Bowel cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Prostate cancer

Others include:

  • Bone cancer
  • Brain tumours
  • Cervical cancer
  • Chronic lymphocytic leukaemia
  • Gallbladder cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Rectal cancer
  • Skin cancer

Why cancer causes hair loss

Hair loss is closely associated with cancer, but it’s not caused by the disease itself in the majority of cases.

Rather, cancer treatments — such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and others — are responsible.

However, Hodgkin’s lymphoma can lead to thinning hair directly.

Cancer patients tend to lose varying amounts of hair due to treatment, depending on a number of factors (such as dosage and frequency & method of delivery).

Two people taking the same type of drugs may experience different degrees of hair loss.

Not all cancer treatments lead to hair loss, and even though chemotherapy is not guaranteed to cause baldness, it is a common side effect.

Hair loss may occur in different areas of the body, affecting the scalp, eyelashes, eyebrows, pubic hair, and more.

Chemotherapy usually leads to gradual hair loss, starting a few weeks after treatment begins.

How does chemotherapy cause hair to fall out?

As it targets rapidly-growing cancer cells to combat the disease, other cells within the body are attacked, including those required for hair growth.

Other types of cancer treatment may trigger hair loss, though this can be mild.

For example, a small proportion of patients undergoing hormone therapy for cancer might experience hair loss during their first year of treatment.

The hair typically thins rather than shedding completely.

Fortunately, most hair loss related to cancer treatments is temporary.

Hair growth should return to normal within months of ending treatment.

What options are available if you’re affected by cancer-related hair loss?

Certain techniques may help to reduce the risk of hair loss during cancer treatment.

For example, a scalp cooling cap placed on the head could slow the flow of blood to the scalp.

Though they don’t offer guarantee results, scalp cooling caps may help patients retain hair.

But they have been known to cause uncomfortable levels of coldness and headaches.

Minoxidil may be applied to the scalp ahead of, and during, chemotherapy to prevent hair loss. Again, this isn’t guaranteed.

In some cases, hair may grow back differently than before, with less coverage on certain areas of the scalp.

Hair transplant surgery may be a viable solution for restoring thicker hair with natural results.

A hair loss expert will be able to offer advice.