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Chemotherapy and hair loss: How women with breast cancer deal with losing their hair – and how to support them

Most women would agree that their hair plays a big part in their looks and self-confidence. So when cancer strikes and a woman has to start chemotherapy, the impending hair loss can make dealing with the big C even more stressful and emotional.

When my late sister Sally underwent chemotherapy for colorectal cancer in 2003, she, like many patients, started losing her hair. She was in her mid-thirties then, fashion-conscious and always immaculately groomed.

One of the things that comforted her and “normalised” her cancer recovery journey, was to continue to look good. And this included getting a wig.

Sally’s chic wig looked exactly like her own chin-length feathered bob. It was made of real hair and after she bought it, she wore it to her hairdresser who gave her the same wispy layers she had worn for years.

“I wasn’t really affected by the hair loss personally but I didn’t want to attract unnecessary attention,” she added. “Wearing a wig allowed me to still enjoy those moments of being out with my family and friends.”   

She said that while many patients – mostly women – at her oncologist’s clinic wore wigs, there were a number who also donned head scarves, hats, caps and beanies. “A friend who was diagnosed with lymphoma wore a head scarf because she found it easier; she didn’t see the need to get a wig,” Foo said.

There are online shopping platforms where you can buy headgear for under S$10. Build up a collection to complement your wardrobe, Foo suggested.   

Ananthini, a 36-year-old with Stage 3 breast cancer, who did the therapy at Dr Lim’s suggestion, said she had benefitted from it. “Hair loss was emotionally distressing and affected my self-esteem. Scalp cooling minimised my hair loss during chemotherapy, and that had a positive impact on my emotional well-being throughout the treatment process.”

The therapy protects the hair follicles from injury caused by chemotherapy drugs delivered through the bloodstream, resulting in faster rates of hair regrowth. At NCIS, the first session costs S$100, and each subsequent visit costs S$76.

“Cooling the scalp constricts the blood vessels there, resulting in less chemotherapy drugs reaching the hair follicles,” said Dr Lim. Cooling too, means less of the drug can penetrate the hair follicle, reducing damage.

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