Cancer treatments and their relationship with Hair Loss

 Hair loss involving the whole scalp can develop as a consequence of taking cancer treatments or by ingesting other toxic products or medications. The medical terminology for this type of hair loss is Anagen Effluvium. The onset of hair loss in these cases is rapid and individuals who start taking these medications can literally pull their hair out in clumps within the first two weeks.

Cytostatic cancer treatments typically slow the rapid growth of the targeted malignant cells but unfortunately also slow the growth of the non-cancerous cells of the body, including hair follicles. Hair fibres from scalp hair follicles grow up to 0.4mm a day or one cm per month and this requires a lot of cell multiplication that is shut down by cytotoxic cancer treatments.

When hair follicles come into contact with anti-cancer medications, they enter a state of suspended animation, frozen in time. The hair fibres fall out quickly and the hair roots appear small or sometimes feathered. The degree of hair loss varies from person to person and depends on the type of medication used.

Some cancer treatment centers use cold therapy to block hair loss. More popular in Europe than North America, cold therapy involves covering the scalp with ice packs or using a special hood filled with cold water while the anti-cancer treatments are given. The cold sends the hair follicles into suspended animation prior to the contact with the treatment. The cold hair follicle cells are unable to take up the cytotoxic medication, preventing the follicles from being damaged and limiting the hair loss. Some experimental medications are being developed to prevent treatment-related hair loss. 

While hair loss from Anagen Effluvium is rapid, the recovery is equally as rapid. Because the hair follicles are simply frozen in time, they are ready to grow once the cytotoxic cancer treatment is stopped. On completion of an anti-cancer medication treatment, a person may start to see new hair growth within a month. The hair follicles are not destroyed and the hair growing back usually has normal density and thickness. Some people may notice a change in the nature of the new hair from straight to curly or vice versa, or sometimes there is a change in colour. These changes can be permanent.

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