Hair Care Advice for Cancer Patients
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Hair Care Advice for Cancer Patients

Expert advice for caring for your hair before, during, and after chemotherapy.

Coping With Hair Loss

Hair loss typically begins three to four weeks after the first dose of chemotherapy, and is usually complete six to eight weeks later. Since it is so traumatic to see long locks fall out in chunks, I recommend that women opt for a shorter style before their treatment begins.

As your hair gets thinner, follow these styling tips:

  • Use a volumizing shampoo and conditioner such as Pantene Pro-V Sheer Volume Conditioner to give a thicker feel to the hair.
  • Use your hairdryer on a slow speed with low heat. Dry hair using a soft round brush that is 1-1/2 to 2 inches in diameter to give your hair some body. Another option is to use Velcro or sponge rollers to add some body to your hair.
  • Style hair using a volumizing mousse like L'Oreal Studio Line Mega Mousse Mega Body, or a spray such as Phytovolume Actif Maximizing Volume Spray. Avoid pomades, cremes or serums or hair will appear limp and greasy. Waxes can help as a thickener in some cases, especially the spray variety. I like Artec Manipulating SprayWax.
  • Keep in mind that hair that is lifted off the head seems thinner because you can see the scalp easier. Longer lengths also make the hair appear thinner.
  • Opt for a side part instead of styling hair straight back. This will help conceal the thinness.

Don't Neglect Your Scalp

While you're undergoing treatment, the scalp can be sensitive and tender, in some cases. Treat your scalp as you would facial skin: Apply Lubriderm or a mild moisturizer to soothe a sensitive scalp, and if you go outside bare-headed, wear sunscreen.

Choosing and Wearing a Wig

Not everyone chooses to wear a wig -- some women prefer headscarves or turbans. But I find that most women do want the option of wearing temporary hair. If you opt for a wig, talk to your hairstylist -- he or she should know of a good wigmaker or supplier. Most hospitals and treatment facilities can also direct you to a specialist in your area if your stylist can't.

At first, most women think they will look terrible in a wig, but the right wig in the hands of a skilled stylist can make all the difference. Most women end up adjusting to their wig more quickly than they thought. In fact, some women buy several wigs in different styles for some variety.

Because the treatment often begins so soon, custom-made wigs may not be completed in time. A ready-made wig that's good to go right out of the box is generally the best option. I do find that these pieces still need some shaping even though they come cut in a ready-to-wear style. A skilled stylist will know what to do in terms of personalizing the style for you.

Typically, I recommend choosing a wig that is the same color as your hair, especially if you're getting only one wig. If you're buying more than one, then you can play around with another color. Remember to select a color that complements your skin tone. Don't get a color that is too close to your skin tone -- or you'll end up looking washed out.

Synthetic vs. Human Hair Wigs

Some women are be able to afford a natural human hair wig, which costs from $1,200 to $3,000. For others, a $200 synthetic wig is more within their budget. Since the period that a wig is needed is generally less than a year, many women choose a synthetic wig because it's more economical. In addition to being more expensive, real hair wigs require more maintenance than their synthetic counterparts. Another difference: Natural hair wigs can be colored (for example, highlights can be added for greater personalization), but synthetics cannot.

Styling a Natural Hair Wig

If you order an uncut, natural hair wig, it will take at least two hours to shape it properly. It's a slow process but in the hands of a skilled stylist the results can be phenomenal. Shaping the wig is very technical and detailed work, and should be done while you are wearing the wig. It's a good idea for the hairstyle to include some kind of bang to hide the hairline of the wig.

Caring for a Natural Hair Wig

You don't have to wash a wig as often as you wash your hair. When you're ready to wash it, fill the sink with water and add two capfuls of Suave shampoo. Don't rub the wig -- just swish it around in the water. The area inside the cap that comes into contact with your head is what needs the most cleaning. Rinse out the shampoo and condition with Suave conditioner. Be careful not to condition the roots of a handmade wig because the knots that tie the hair to the netting can come undone. (You don't need to worry about this if the wig is a machine made wefted wig.) Let the wig dry overnight on a styling head that is correctly sized for your wig. Generally, the Styrofoam heads are perfect. The canvas types come in different sizes and one that's too big will stretch the wig. To style, use the cool setting on your hairdryer. Human hair wigs can be styled with irons and other tools.

Nurturing New Hair Growth

When your hair starts to grow in -- usually about two months after the chemo treatments end -- don't expect it to look exactly the same as it did before. The new hair comes in finer with a fuzzy-frizzy texture at first, but then quickly settles down. It's not uncommon for hair to come in with a different color. In most cases, the initial growth is not a sign of a permanent change. Eventually, hair returns to its original shade and texture, or pretty close to it.

The first few months are very exciting as new hair comes in. I recommend a volumizing shampoo like Amplify by Matrix, Suave Professional Amplifying Shampoo or L'Oreal Body Vive Thickening Shampoo to make the new growth appear fuller. A shampoo with vitamin E -- such as Phytonectar Ultra Nourishing Shampoo -- is also a good choice. As your hair comes in, you will only need to trim a little in the back and around the ears. For color, a gentle formula for a single process or highlights done with an off-the-scalp technique works best.

Many women experience scalp itchiness while wearing a wig. To alleviate the discomfort, I suggest using a scalp brush (they can be purchased at beauty supply stores or online). While in the shower, pour some shampoo onto the brush and methodically scrub the entire scalp from back to front. This is also a great technique for caring for your scalp when the hair is coming back after chemotherapy.

Styling Your New Hair

As soon as you have enough length, it's best to have your hair cut into a shape that will flatter you as it grows. Short hair can be curled a la Halle Berry, or it can be a little disheveled like Selma Blair's. It can be punky or sleek depending on your mood. You can style your hair with your fingers or round brush and hairdryer, or give it body and movement with a curling iron. Accessories like barrettes, thin headbands, and scarves are wonderful for dolling up your short 'do.

As far as styling products go, look for ones that won't weight your hair down. Redken Clean Lift Pure Volume Gel is a good choice. Bumble and Bumble Sumotech is a molding compound that'll give a modern texture that's low-gloss and not greasy. Finish with Clairol Herbal Essences Natural Volume Weightless Hairspray for hold.