Any of these words can create a sense of fear and anxiety. Patients are understandably uneasy about the treatment and possible side effects, particularly hair loss. It’s only natural. This is not an everyday occurrence for you. You may not be prepared, but given the facts and the opportunity to study them, you will feel less fearful.
You can begin to feel better about the treatment, and you’ll cooperate better because you understand what is happening and more importantly why it is happening. Our hope here is to give you some of the facts in non-medical language about the relationship between chemotherapy, radiation therapy, alopecia and hair loss.
The Root of the Process… It surprises most people to learn the strands of their growing hair are technically lifeless. Real growth only takes place in the hair follicle (the root). Here a constant process of cell division is taking place. Certain amino acids – nature’s building blocks – are taken from the blood feeding the hair roots, to be joined with the dividing cells.
New cells begin to form into chains. Those chains link up with other chains. The result is a long fiber. By this time, the nucleus of the original cell is dead. The amino acids have formed into a hard keratin.
What is Keratin? It is the protein substance that hair and nails are made from. It is inert or lifeless. It gets pushed ahead by the newly forming cells in the hair root (follicle). As it gets pushed farther and farther out, hair appears to “grow”. And in a sense it really does. From the roots, not at the ends. This briefly sums up a very complex chemical process. The point is, hair growth takes place in the hair root where the amino acids from the blood first join with the dividing cells. Significantly, this same process is the one by which all body cells reproduce themselves. The hair follicle follows this pattern on a cyclical basis. That is, the root builds the hair shaft for a period of time, and rests for a while. Then, it begins producing hair again. The building state is one of the body’s most active “growing” processes.
Hair Loss can be temporary or permanent. Alopecia in Women may be attributed to four factors: extreme shock or stress to the body’s nervous system, aging, hormones, or genetics.
The patchy hair loss is usually due to alopecia areata, an autoimmune skin disease, which causes bald patches to appear on the scalp. Areata is Latin for “round” or “circumscribed”, which means that people usually see bald spots here and there, or little tiny short hairs that are broken off. In alopecia Areata, the affected hair follicles are mistakenly attacked by a persons own immune system (white blood cells) resulting in the arrest of the hair growth stage. Alopecia usually starts with one or two smooth round bald patches on the scalp and can progress to total scalp hair loss. Treatments are few and mostly unsuccessful in regaining the hair loss.
Since cancer is a condition of uncontrolled cell growth, anticancer drug administration (such as chemotherapy) aims at reducing, or stopping, this abnormal growth. Anti-cancer drugs act on both normal cells and cancerous cells.
All cells are more receptive to the action of drugs during active cell reproduction. Cells which reproduce most rapidly are those most likely to be destroyed. Some normal cells – such as hair follicles- also divide rapidly, which is why they are also affected by chemotherapy.
At any one time, about 85% of the hair follicles are reproducing. This is when the hair gets longer. For this reason chemotherapy drugs whose chief purpose is to attack and destroy the rapidly reproducing cancer cells may have the same effect on your active hair cells.
When chemotherapy is completed, you can expect that the hair follicles will resume their task of processing amino acids from your blood and building new hair again.
Cancer is a term that applies to a large group of diseases characterized by the uncontrolled growth and spread of abnormal cells. The biochemical process through which cancerous cells reproduce and grow in the body is similar to how your healthy body cells actively reproduce. The “growing stage” in the hair root cycle and the abnormal growth of cancer cells are very much alike.
Various drugs are used in chemotherapy treatment. The amount of hair loss depends upon the type and dosage prescribed. Not all chemotherapy drugs cause hair loss. Best of all, in all but rare instances, hair loss is temporary!
Radiation therapy is the use of high energy rays to stop cancer cells from growing within its reach- cancerous and normal- to grow and reproduce. However, cancer cells are more sensitive to radiation than normal cells. If radiation is given just as the cancer cell is about to reproduce- to divide into two cells- the radiation will prevent the cell from dividing and it will die. Radiation is a strong treatment for cancer and can sometimes affect normal tissue, causing side effects. With radiation treatment to the head and neck area, one possible side effect may be hair loss.