For women hair loss caused by chemotherapy can be one of the most difficult side effects to bear. It is an obvious sign that one is going through cancer treatment. The moment when the hair starts to go can be extremely upsetting to not mention physically uncomfortable. Some people experience a sensation akin to pins and needles in every follicle in their head, the inclination is to touch the area that feels like this only to then end up with a handful of hair.
Many people prefer to take matters into their own hands and cut their hair very short (it certainly feels better when there is not a pile of hair in the shower plughole each morning). Once the short hair can be tolerated it is then a much smaller step to shave the head completely.
I used to google images of women with bald heads so I could see that some beautiful people shave their heads simply because it looks good! If it were not for the public perception I would have been very happy to walk around with my bald head as I thought it looked great. But a large amount of self-confidence is required for a woman to rock the bald look plus an ability to ignore glances from those around you.
On a practical note it is cold in the winter – cool beanie hats are my advice, nobody knows whether you are a cancer sufferer or a cool chick if you are wearing a Stussy beanie hat (the best present I received from a friend!). You also need to keep that precious head protected in the summer – bucket hats were my go-to protection as they also shield your eyes and your neck.
Wigs are the obvious way to remain looking like your old self. I spent a fortune on a wig, only to hate wearing it. I felt it made me look weird and old fashioned plus it made my head really itchy and was extremely hot in the summer. I had more fun with a cheap wig in the style of a platinum bob. I guess my issues were because I already had short hair and I found that none of the wigs were short enough for me to look like me. I tried to have a hairdresser cut my wig shorter but there is a limit to how short they can go without the net of the wig showing through. If anyone has found a fabulous short wig please send a photo of you in it.
I am sure it would have been easier to match long hair and maybe those of you with experience can share your thoughts on this and I will add to this page.
All I can say is that I felt that if my hair came out it showed that the chemo was doing its thing and better than that when my hair grew back later it came back much better than before, absolutely thick and silvery white.
Macmillan Cancer Support have a lovely supportive section on their site dealing with hair loss.
LET’S TALK BREASTS….
Women who have had breast cancer treatment often have lifelong issues to deal with. For example after surgery you’ll be left with a scar or scars. This can be very upsetting and have an important effect on how you see your body, not least because they can be an outward sign of having cancer.
There is so much information online about how to deal with post breast cancer life. One of the most informative sites I found was Breast Cancer Now’s site.
It explains how many women find they feel differently about themselves and lack confidence and self esteem, feeling unattractive or incomplete or lop-sided. Breast Cancer Now explain that research has shown that the sooner you confront the physical changes to your body, the easier you may find it to gain confidence in the way you look and that it can help some people if they have a partner, by letting their partner see the surgical scars and changes to their body as soon as they can bear.
The advice they give is that the first few times you look at yourself might make you feel unhappy and shocked, and you may want to avoid looking at yourself again. However, the initial intense feelings you may have will lessen over time as you get more used to how you look now.
Breast Cancer Now set out the following steps to help you get used to looking at your body
1. First, it may help to look at yourself in a full-length mirror fully clothed and pick out three things you really like about yourself.
2. After that, do the same wearing lingerie or underwear.
3. When you feel ready you can move on to looking at your naked body in a full-length mirror. Describe what you see and what you like or what makes you feel awkward or uncomfortable.
4. Look at and touch your scars or breast reconstruction so that you get used to how this now feels.
5. The more often you look at and feel your body, the less different it will seem.
Some women will continue to feel uncomfortable about looking at their body. If you’ve tried the techniques above and still find looking at your body difficult or upsetting, you may find it helpful to speak to a counsellor. Your GP or breast care nurse should be able to arrange this for you.
We appreciate that the breast section above refers to women who have had breast cancer treatment and that men can also suffer from breast cancer. If any men are reading this page and have helpful advice or references please send them to email@example.com.
Side effects of cancer treatment
Some cancer drugs can affect the skin, including chemotherapy and biological therapies. They can make the skin:
- become dry
- become discoloured – usually darker
- more sensitive to sunlight
- break out in rashes or spots, similar to acne
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Radiotherapy treatment can affect your skin, making it sore and look redder or darker than usual.
Keeping your skin clean, hydrated, dry and moisturised will help to keep it healthy. What you need to do may change, depending on the factors above.
Drink loads of water at least 2 litres a day.
Some cancers cause itching. We don’t fully understand why. Doctors think it may be due to substances released by the tumour or by the body reacting to the tumour. The itching tends to be all over the body but worse on the legs and chest. It usually goes when you have treatment for the cancer.
Some cancer treatments cause itching. This may be itching over the whole body (generalised itching) or just in one part of the body. You may also have a rash.
Some treatments, such as hormone or targeted therapies, can cause an itchy skin rash. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you are allergic to the treatment. Researchers have found that for some types of treatment (for example, the targeted cancer drug erlotinib) itching can be a sign that your treatment is working.
There are some treatments that can help to soothe and relieve itching. Your doctor may need to try a few until you find one that works.
Some cancers can cause you to sweat more than usual. These include:
- non-Hodgkin lymphoma
- Hodgkin lymphoma
- carcinoid tumours
- bone cancer
- liver cancer
People with advanced cancer of any type may also have sweating.
Changes in hormone levels can cause hot flushes and sweats. Your hormone levels may change because of the cancer itself, or because of treatment such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy or hormone therapy.
Treatment for breast cancer can put women into an early menopause. For some women, this causes hot flushes and sweats. Women who have already had their menopause can have hot flushes again when they start hormone treatment.
Men can have hot flushes and sweating when they have hormone treatment for prostate cancer or breast cancer, because it reduces the amount of testosterone in the body.
Recent research is helping us to understand why changes in sex hormone levels cause hot flushes and sweats. This is needed in order to find better treatment for these symptoms.
Medicines and cancer drugs
Sweating and hot flushes can be a side effect of some drug treatments, including chemotherapy and morphine.
Things you can do to reduce sweating
There are medicines that can help reduce sweating. Ask your doctor if any would work for you.
- avoid alcohol and caffeine as this dilates the blood vessels in the skin, increasing sweating
- avoid spicy foods and eating large meals late at night
- keep your room at a cool, comfortable temperature
- have a fan nearby at night
- wear layers of clothes so you can easily take off or put on a layer to adjust your temperature
- use light bedclothes so you can take some off if you get hot
- if you are sweating a lot at night, lie on a soft towel to soak up moisture and keep your sheets dry
- drink at least 2.5 to 3 litres (preferably water) a day as you can lose a lot of fluid in sweat
- have plenty of warm baths or showers