It’s been a long while since I finished the treatments that brought me to my current remission status. Today I want to write about hair loss and growth after chemo (with pictures). You can read me battling and surviving colon cancer stage 4 here.
First, I knew that cancer – and even more so, cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiation – meant systemic changes to my entire body, including the hair. I was sad when my hair thinned to such a point that I had to chop it off and wait for it to fill up. When I would ask my fellow patients, “does the hair grow back after chemo?”, everyone reassured me that it would.
It did, but it did not come back the same way it was before, it came back maybe about a half of the pre-cancer amount.
Second, I realize, I should not be sad or mad over such small things as hair loss and regrowth. I’m alive, I’m well, I regained the weight. I’m here when so many of my fellow-travelers are not.
Third, of course, I am grateful for all this and I know I shouldn’t sweat the hair issue, but… being a woman, working full-time, needing to look presentable, mom of young children, I still sweat the issue and I try to do everything possible to make the post-chemo hair growth better.
Stages of Hair Growth After Chemo
First Chemo and Radiation
During the initial radiation and chemotherapy courses, my hair did not fall out, it just stopped growing and seemed lackluster and dry. But I didn’t even notice, being so preoccupied with saving my life. In fact, it was nice to not have to shave my legs, which I most probably wouldn’t have bothered doing that first year anyhow, but still…
Then came a year of recovery form that initial chemo, I started feeling better, aside from occasional overnight stays in the hospital due to bowel blockages (related to the colon surgery and the impact of chemo on the gut lining). During one of these stays, I had a routine Ct-scan performed and found out there was a small nodule in my lung.
Second Round of Chemo
The biopsy confirmed that it was indeed a metastasis and so came another round of the harsh 5FU chemo, a stronger and bolder one, one that would wipe out my entire system. The added Ironitecan, or as it’s known amongst the fellow patients “I run to the can” for its effects on the digestive system, is also known to have hair thinning or loss as one of its side effects.
I was prepared mentally and emotionally for what would come. Starting with the second infusion my hair would fall out in clumps in the shower. The next round three weeks later made my hair just float away in the wind or when I brushed it super gently with my fingers. By the fourth round, I had maybe 40% of hair left and I decided to chop it off super short and I bought a wig.
My New Frenemy
Man, did I hate that thing! I live in California and I started wearing the wig to work in August, the hottest month of the year! It was excruciatingly hot under that thing, maybe because I still had my own wisps of hair left, I don’t know. I just know that I was dreaming of the time I would have enough regrowth to ditch the thing for good.
But the hair was very slow in coming back. It took me half a year to be ready to show myself to my students and colleagues sans the wig. But when I finally could sport my new short do, it was so liberating!
Finding Effective Home Remedies For Hair Growth After Chemo
Maybe I’m impatient, maybe I was mistaken, but I thought that the new growth would be strong and vibrant, kind of like a totally new hair growth, a kid-strong or young-person-strong hair.
Well, recovering from cancer, having gone through into early menopause due to radiation, and not being in my 30s anymore, all mean that that dream might not be achievable. The hair grew, but still at about 50-60 percent volume, thin and fine like baby’s hair, now also starting to gray (great, just great!)
Sticking to Natural Ways
An additional challenge in my trying to recover the length, volume, and vibrancy of my pre-cancer hair is that I do not go the chemical way or some crazy “vampire” transplant way, but instead I opt for only natural approaches. Did you know that there are about 5000 different chemicals in commercial hair dyes that can cause cancer? Using them would be the last thing I would want in contact with my hair and body.
What Worked with Hair Growth and What Did Not
I want to share with you what worked and what didn’t. Spoiler alert: the majority of the “miracles” advertised on the web did not! So here is what I’ve tried so far.
- Consulted with a naturopath and ordered some supplements
- Consulted with the regular doctor who ordered blood tests for iron, ferritin, and thyroid health (all came back normal); and told me to stop coloring hair (even with the semi-permanent dies)
- Consulted with a hairdresser and got a hair-cut to maximize volume
- Consulted with the Internet and tried lots of more or less wacky “miracle cures” for thinning hair
Miracles (that Are Not Really Miracles but Can Help Somewhat)
- Soaking hair in fermented rice water: what a stinky mess! I did it for a month, didn’t help the thinning at all, but might have spurred some growth (length, not volume)
- Castor oil packs: another mess! Castor oil is great but very, very thick. It is impossible to wash out, so it needs to be mixed with another, thinner oil like fractionated coconut oil, sesame oil, or sweet almond oil.
- Raw egg with aloe packs: awful! Didn’t work at all, I tried it several times, to no real effect.
- Baking soda wash: not good! It made my hair very dry and scalp itchy, and scratching your head is not a good idea when the hair is so thin and weak.
So, what did I stick with?
1. Got a shorter cut (shorter is better hairstyle for thin hair, it seems bouncier)
2. Stopped combing or brushing hair until it dries completely
- Biotin, 5mg/day
- Zinc, 30 mg/day
- Collagen peptides, 11g/day
4. Started using organic henna powder for coloring (henna is amazing, not only does it color hair beautifully, it is also really conditioning for hair and scalp)
5. Pre-wash hair packs on the days I shampoo made with Ayurvedic herbs and oils. It’s okay to mix and match or try them alternatively:
- neem powder and neem oil paste
- hibiscus powder with yogurt hair mask
- Bhringaraj and sesame oil hair packs for overnight as pre-wash treatment
6. Handmade conditioner for co-washing on days I don’t use shampoo (since I workout almost every day, shampooing my hair every day would be too drying, so instead I go for two washes with just the conditioner, and every third wash it with shampoo and condition afterward). My conditioner is made of Aloe Vera Juice, Rose Hydrosol, Black Cumin oil, Black Castor oil and essential oils that are known for helping with hair growth:
- Ylang ylang
I also add these same essential oils to my Argan Oil and Olive Squalene Hair Serum (great for all hair types, not only for post-cancer hair)
7. De-stressing – easier said than done but stress has a tremendous effect on the state of our hair. Anything to help with stress will benefit the hair as well. Stress is detrimental to our overall health, to the look of our skin and hair, and it is also crucial to learn to deal with stress when trying to avoid cancer or recurrence. I’m meditating daily, taking relaxing baths, and doing breathing exercises whenever time permits.
That’s it for now. The process is still ongoing. I see a little bit less shedding in the shower. Let’s hope with the established routine. I’ll keep the hair I currently have and maybe get some more!
If you have struggled with hair care in the past and found some amazing solutions, please drop me a note. As you can see, I’m up for trying anything 🙂
UPDATE (June 8, 2020)
The past three months I’ve been taking an herbal hair growth supplement called Nutrafol and I believe it is really helping my hair. I definitely see much less shedding in the shower and on the brush. I also noticed that the hair is fuller and bouncier! Coloring with henna every 4-6 weeks has been also helping.
My ponytail is still about half of what it used to be but I also stopped stressing about it too much. Growing older has its drawbacks and hair thinning might be one of them, but hey! I’m here, I’m healthy and happy, and every year brings new wisdom and perspective!