4 Things to Ask About Cancer and Hair Loss

January 3, 2018
Charlotte Caldwell, ASCO Staff

Feeling good about yourself during cancer treatment can be challenging, especially as your body goes through physical changes. One of these changes may be losing your hair as a side effect of treatment.share on twitter 

Hair loss, or alopecia, is caused when treatment damages the cells that help hair grow. It is a common side effect of some types of chemotherapy, targeted therapy, radiation therapy, and bone marrow/stem cell transplantation.

1. Who can help me understand my risk for hair loss?

Your health care team is there to help explain and manage the side effects of your specific treatment plan, including emotional side effects related to your self-image during and after treatment. Talking with your doctor before treatment begins about what to expect can help you feel prepared. Questions to ask include whether hair loss is likely, when and how much hair will fall out, and when it is likely to regrow. Many people feel empowered if they have that information in advance and can explore programs and resources for people experiencing hair loss. There may also be things to consider, such as cold cap therapy or certain topical medications, that can help prevent hair loss. If hair loss does happen, deciding to wear a wig or other head covering, such as a scarf or hat, is a very personal decision.  

2. What does a wig cost?

Wigs can cost anywhere between $40 and thousands of dollars. Your health insurance may cover some or all of the cost of a wig. If insurance does not cover the cost, there are many programs and resources available nationwide to help people with cancer get free or low-cost wigs (as well as other head covering options).

If you have health insurance, reaching out to your insurance company is a good place to start. Many insurers will assign a case manager to help people manage their cancer treatment coverage. A case manager can inform you about options you have for covering the cost of a wig, sometimes called a “hair prosthesis.” This may require a prescription from your oncologist.

3. Where can I find more support to help me with my appearance?

Many cancer centers offer resources to people who are experiencing hair loss. Some may even have programs that provide free wigs, hats, or scarves. Talk with a social worker, nurse, or other member of your health care team about options your center has to offer. There are also national programs that offer self-image assistance, such as the Look Good Feel Better program. This program is open to all women who are undergoing cancer treatment. It is designed to help women learn how to manage appearance-related side effects, including hair loss. The American Cancer Society has a free wig program for people who financially qualify in some locations. And, there are several efforts to provide free scarves and hats, such as the Hope Scarves program, the Good Wishes program, and the Heavenly Hats program; they all send a head covering to patients upon request.

4. Is it helpful to look for hair loss support in my community?

Coping with hair loss is very personal and individual to each patient, but many people have found help and support coping by reaching out to others. For instance, Kate Zickel was diagnosed with cancer in late 2017.share on twitter Her health care team explained that her treatments would cause hair loss, and so she began her search for information, quickly learning how supportive her new community would be. 

“I still can’t believe the people coming together for cancer. The idea that people around you want to help you, maybe people that you’ve never even met, is huge,” she says. “I found that by sharing and being open and honest and public about my experience has helped me tremendously.”

Ms. Zickel met others in her community who had lost their hair during cancer treatment and who wanted to help by donating their wigs or sharing resources. It also helped her feel supported emotionally, which can truly help people gain or regain control of their self-image.

“It felt like, you’re in this with me. Cancer and this experience can be so isolating.”

Be sure to check with your health care team about local support groups and services that may be available to you.