People coping with cancer today are able to manage side effects better than ever before. Still, hair loss remains a common side effect of cancer and its treatments. For many patients, this dramatic change in appearance is one of the most distressing aspects of their cancer journey. Hair loss is not only a physical change for both men and women; it can also be an emotional challenge that creates feelings of insecurity, anxiety and depression.
Fannie, of New York City, can attest to these feelings all too well. Her treatments for stage II breast cancer were effective at slowing the cancer’s growth, but caused her to immediately begin losing her hair. Fannie admitted to her oncology nurse that she was thankful her treatment was working but very distressed by her hair falling out.
Fortunately, many resources are available to help people like Fannie cope with these changes. The following practical tips also can help patients with cancer cope with hair loss.
• Change to a shorter hairstyle before starting treatment. Shorter hair is easier to manage under a wig. A shorter style will make hair look thicker and fuller because it does not lay as flat against the head.
• Buy a wig before all the hair falls out. This way, the wig will be a good match to the patient’s own hair color. Having the wig ahead of time will also help the patient feel more prepared for when his or her hair falls out.
• Get a professional fitting. There are full-service wig salons that fit and style wigs. Some of these salons even specialize in helping women with treatment-related hair loss.
• Remember to save the receipt. If the patient’s insurance policy does not cover the cost of the wig, the purchase qualifies as a medical tax deduction. Therefore, the patient should save the receipt for the wig regardless of whether the policy covers its cost.
• Consider wearing a scarf or turban. Wig salons often sell turbans and scarves that come in a variety of colors and fabrics. These can be worn in public instead of a wig, depending on preference, or for when the patient is home.
• Stress the importance of caring for the scalp. Instruct patients to use sun protection on their scalp when outdoors, such as sunscreen, a hat, or a scarf.
• Reassure patients that hair loss is most often temporary. Whether hair is lost entirely or just thins out, let patients know they can expect it to grow back when treatment ends.
When helping patients grieve the physical change of hair loss, encourage them to seek out and take advantage of valuable resources. Gaining knowledge and support can make the situation seem much less overwhelming. CancerCare (www.cancercare.org) has helpful publications and workshops on hair loss, and offers free wig clinics for residents in New York City, New Jersey, and Long Island. CancerCare social workers will also refer patients to organizations in their community that provide wigs at no cost.