Cancer treatments fall under two broad categories, localised treatments and systemic treatments. Localised treatments like surgery and radiotherapy treat the particular part of the body that is affected. Systemic treatments like chemotherapy and hormonal therapy treat the whole body. Usually, for any type of cancer, be it breast cancer, lung cancer or brain tumor, a combination of methods and therapies is used to treat them.
All of these cancer treatments come with side-effects. Knowing what to expect during these treatments can help the patients and their families to cope better. While much is said about hair loss during chemotherapy, radiation therapy side effects is not widely discussed.
What is Radiation?
Radiotherapy aims to destroy cancer cells by passing high energy x-rays or photon beams through the affected area. There are various kinds of radiation therapy which the oncologist can prescribe depending on the type and stage of the cancer. Radiotherapy is typically administered once every week for over a few months.
Do You Lose Hair During Radiotherapy?
While scalp hair loss during chemotherapy is almost certain, effects of radiation therapy may or may not cause hair loss. Hair loss due to exposure to radiation will depend on which part of your body was administered with radiotherapy. For breast cancer patients, radiation will be targeted only on the breast. This will not cause any loss of scalp hair. There may be loss of hair in the armpit and around the breast though. However, since radiotherapy is usually given in combination with chemotherapy, any hair loss on head for breast cancer patients is due to chemotherapy and not a side effect of radiotherapy.
If radiation therapy is given alone, there will not be any loss of hair on the head unless radiation is targeted on the head, neck or mouth. In such cases, hair loss may be local or complete. Hair loss will also happen in the areas from where the radiation beams exit the body.
Why Does Radiation Cause Hair Loss?
The high energy X-rays, unable to differentiate, destroy not only the cancer cells but also the healthy cells. Fast growing cells like hair follicles are easily affected by these radiations. However, since radiotherapy is localised, the resulting hair fall is also local. So, for those undergoing radiation therapy for breast cancer treatment, prostate cancer, lung cancer and such that are away from the head, scalp hair fall during radiation should not be a concern.
For those getting treatment for brain tumors and cancers near the head, hair fall is expected. It may still be local resulting in a bald patch or it may cause more extensive baldness. Since every patient has a different reaction, it is difficult to predict how much hair loss may actually happen. Hair fall may begin two to three weeks after the first radiotherapy session.
Is The Hair Loss Due to Radiotherapy Permanent?
How long does it take to recover from radiation therapy is a tough question to answer. While hair loss from chemotherapy is usually temporary, hair fall due to radiotherapy may take longer to grow back. In some cases, it may take years to regrow; while in others hair loss may be permanent. Even when it does grow back, the hair may be thinner, with a different texture and even colour. None of this can be predicted and every patient may have a different experience.
How to Cope with Hair Loss Due to Radiotherapy?
Patients who are about to undergo radiotherapy on their head are often advised to visit a wig specialist before they lose their natural hair. That way the wig manufacturer can design a customised wig which is similar in style and texture to the existing hair. However, natural hair wigs are now coming in various textures and styles and it should not be difficult to find a suitable wig even later.
Scarves, turbans and hats are popular choices amongst western patients but it is not so common in India. In India, many times, a woman wearing a turban or dupatta is directly related to having cancer. The key to coping with the emotional aspect of one’s changing appearance is to be aware and prepared to face what is coming. There are various cancer support groups and centers that help patients tide over this difficult period.
Treating cancer and getting treated for cancer is an extremely challenging and emotional experience. The good news is that medical advancements have made these treatments more effective with reduced side effects. However, there is still a long way to go and until then patients have to fight not just the cancer but also deal with the harmful effects of radiotherapy and chemotherapy.