Hair Loss–Or Lack Thereof–Has Emotional Effects on Cancer Patients
While hair loss is not a life-threatening condition and it is not physically painful, it can affect a person’s mental health–elevating stress and anxiety and reducing quality of life. Specifically, female-identified cancer patients, in particular, experience challenges with hair loss on the psychological, emotional, and social level.
There are many of studies that support the challenges associated with hair loss and cancer. The studies range from explaining why it happens, methods to prevent it from happening, perceptions of hair loss, the stigma around it, and more. While many of the psychosocial studies have largely been focused around breast cancer and hair loss, the findings are still important and could be relevant to all cancer types, including colorectal cancer.
A study from 2017 confirmed that hair loss can be a traumatic experience for patients. In the study, 24 female survivors who had undergone treatment for breast cancer or ductal carcinoma in situ, meaning the cancer had not spread, were interviewed. The responses suggest that there is a perceived stigma attached to being a cancer patient, and a stigma about not fitting in with the societal norms of having hair. Surprisingly, there was also notable distress felt by women who did not lose their hair – again, because they didn’t fit the stereotypical look of a cancer patient. Hair loss on the head, face (including eyelashes and eyebrows), and hair on the body (arms, etc), can all have an effect on the emotional health of a patient.
The interesting thing about hair loss as a cancer patient: if you have hair, it’s quite possible that nobody notices you or knows that you’re in treatment. They may say things like “well, you don’t look sick,” or may throw you a side-eye for taking time off of work. If you’ve lost your hair, it’s likely that people ask about it–thus robbing you of the privacy of your health and wellness.
The bottom line is that hair plays a big role in a cancer survivor’s psychosocial health. With No-Shave November upon us, it’s important to understand ways to address these unique challenges.
Rectal cancer survivor, Jessica, shares her own story of strength
Jessica, a Fight CRC Ambassador, has recently been posting photos about her hair loss. We asked her to shed some light on her experience so that, hopefully, she can reach others who may be experiencing this side effect and provide some advice and words of encouragement.
This is my second time losing my hair in my cancer journey. I was diagnosed in 2015 and was put on Folfoxiri. The irinotecan made me start shedding like crazy. The doctors told me that if it was going to happen, it would start within 14 days. And it started, literally, on day 13. I was getting ready to go to brunch with my girlfriends, and I pulled out a huge chunk of hair. I was devastated because I knew I was going to actually look like a cancer patient. I finally had my friend come shave my head because I couldn’t take seeing the hair fall out all around me.
Honestly, once I shaved it I felt like I took control of the situation and said “take that cancer” It was very liberating.
I made the most of it. I bought several different wigs, all different colors and cuts…styles I would have never tried before. It made getting ready super quick. And let’s be honest, when you are going through chemo, who has the energy to dry and curl their hair? I found the positives in it.
This second round of Folfoxiri made me lose my hair again, it was finally getting long enough I could rock the Pebbles hairdo…but now it is gone.
My advice to patients losing hair is to remember it is just hair. It is just a temporary side effect and it will grow back! Look at the positives: less maintenance when you are so tired from chemo, and you can have fun with it!
Own it. You are going through the hardest time of your life. Losing your hair is another sign you are a warrior and you are fighting for your life.
You are a bald, beautiful, brave warrior…don’t let losing your hair change any of that!
Cancer is tough, scary, and the hardest thing physically and mentally you will probably ever go through in your life. Embrace it, try and find the light in every single situation, from losing your hair to meeting new friends who know exactly what you are feeling and going through. Don’t let cancer take your light–it already takes so much. Lean on your new “family” because we all understand, and we’re there for you, with hair or without.
Have you lost your hair because of cancer treatment? Leave a comment below about how you coped and tips for others.
Want to show support for a survivor in your life? Take part in No-Shave November!
Coe K., Staten L., Rosales C., and Swanson M. The Enigma of the Stigma of Hair Loss: Why is Cancer-Treatment Related Alopecia so Traumatic for Women? The Open Cancer Journal, 2013, 6, 1-8.
Trusson D., Pilnick A. The Role of Hair Loss in Cancer Identity: Perceptions of Chemotherapy-Induced Alopecia Among Women Treated for Early-Stage Breast Cancer or Ductal Carcinoma in Situ. Cancer Nursing Practice. 2017 Mar/Apr;40(2):E9-E16.