January 10, 2024

Why Do People With Cancer Shave Their Heads?

Woman with a shaved head

Why Do People with Cancer Shave Their Heads?

It’s common for people who are fighting cancer to shave their heads. Why do they do this? Typically, the reason has to do with one of the tools for fighting cancer: chemotherapy.

This article addresses why chemotherapy motivates some cancer patients to shave their heads.

What Is Chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is the use of powerful medications to attack cancer cells and keep them from multiplying. Chemotherapy drugs target fast-growing cells. However, in the process, they can attack rapidly growing non-cancerous cells in other areas.

When treatment affects the similarly robust cells in the mouth and intestinal lining, it can cause sores and diarrhea, respectively. And because it attacks cells in hair roots, chemotherapy typically causes hair loss.

Some cancer patients also receive radiation therapy, which can affect hair roots in a similar way to chemotherapy.

Reasons People Shave Their Heads During Cancer Treatment

Every person’s cancer journey is unique, but some of the reasons people shave their heads during treatment include:

  • A desire to “take control” of hair loss. Losing your hair during cancer treatment can cause unpleasant emotions like fear, anger, embarrassment, etc. Some people find that being proactive by shaving their heads gives them a sense of control and helps them get comfortable with their new look. They may also be more concerned about the “going bald” look than the “fully bald” look.
  • Reduced care requirements. Many people find trying to keep their hair looking like it always has for as long as possible time-consuming and frustrating. Shaving your head and embracing the hairless look or putting on a hat, bandana, or wig is much faster and more efficient when treatment appointments may stretch your time or energy level.
  • Improved comfort. Some cancer patients find that the gradual loss of their hair can leave their heads feeling itchy or uncomfortable. Shaving their head gets them immediately to a more comfortable, hair-free place. 

If you choose to shave your head before or during cancer treatment, it’s a good idea to talk with your doctor first. They may advise you on the best way to do it. For example, you shouldn’t use a straight-edge razor to shave your head since it can leave tiny nicks that increase the risk of infection.

Chemotherapy and Hair Loss: What to Expect

The amount of hair loss you experience from chemotherapy will depend on multiple factors, including the type and dosage of medication you receive. However, generally speaking, you can expect hair loss to start two to four weeks after you begin chemotherapy.

You may lose the hair on your head gradually or in clumps. You may first see more hair than usual on your comb, brush, pillow, or shower drain. You may also notice your scalp feeling sore or tender.

Chemotherapy can also affect your eyelashes, eyebrows, and the hair in your armpits and pubic areas. Hair loss typically continues throughout treatment or until all the hair in affected areas is gone. It may even continue for a few weeks after you complete your treatment.

In most cases, you can’t prevent hair loss. However, you may be able to slow or reduce hair loss through actions like optimizing the health of your hair before treatment starts (avoiding bleaching, coloring, perms, etc.), and wearing a scalp-cooling cap during chemotherapy infusions. Your care team can discuss the advantages and limitations of various practices.

Hair Regrowth After Chemotherapy

It can take several weeks for your hair cells to recover following chemotherapy and for hair to start growing. When your hair returns, it may initially be different from how it was before your treatment.

For instance, it may have a different color or texture. You may also find that your previously straight hair is somewhat curly. In some cases, new hairs are gray until the cells that produce your hair pigment start functioning normally again.

Be Prepared for Hair Loss with Cancer Treatment

Most patients receiving cancer treatment experience hair thinning or hair loss. Developing a strategy for dealing with it before your treatment starts can reduce your stress about losing your hair.

Whether you let it fall out naturally or shave your head, it can feel good to know it’s your choice.

Learn More.

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