Dealing with Physical Changes During Cancer Treatment

Hair Loss

A diagnosis of cancer can be devastating. Equally devastating to cancer patients are the physical changes that take place through chemotherapy, radiotherapy and medication use. Hair loss, changes to skin colour and texture and changes to nails all impact on a person's self-esteem.

For many cancer patients, losing their hair is the first difficult confrontation that they must address. Hair loss is an outward sign, not always easily hidden, but to those who are affected it can seem to shout to others that a person is very , very sick. Hair loss doesn't occur just on the scalp but includes the eyebrows and eyelashes. Other side effects of cancer treatment include blotchy skin, heightened colour or sallow skin tones, dry skin, chipped nails and changes in weight.

If hair loss is inevitable, cutting the hair before treatment helps make hair loss less dramatic. Don’t forget to keep a lock of your hair so that it can be matched to wig colour. A synthetic wig is cheaper and easier to care for than one of natural hair and nowadays is just as attractive and realistic. Don’t try to make your hair style too perfect. Slightly dishevelled may look more natural! Treat your wig like your own hair. Add a ribbon, tie it up and add clips.

Shampoo(92573)Credit: Wikimedia

While undergoing treatment for cancer, use gentle shampoos and conditioners. Avoid medicated or drying shampoos. Ingredients which should be avoided include salicyclic acid, camphor, menthol, eucalyptus and henna

Until you have finished your treatment, avoid perming, colouring or straightening your hair – unless your doctor says it is okay. The general waiting time is six months after the cessation of treatment. It is best to avoid curling irons, hair-dryers and rollers. Speak to your hair-dresser to discuss the pros and cons of shaving your scalp rather than letting your hair fall out in clumps. If you are going to undergo radiation on your head, you may wish to consider growing your hair so that there is the option of a better coverage of sparse patches.

Remember that when your hair grows back it could be a different colour and/or texture. This new ‘you’ could be a permanent or temporary thing. This may affect the style you wish to adopt. Your hair-dresser will be able to advise you.

Types of wigs

  • Synthetic wigs cost less and are easy to maintain as they retain their style even after washing.
          Machine-made synthetic – these are usually reasonably priced and should come in a style similar to your own hair. They are to be preferred over low-quality hand-made wigs.
          Hand -made synthetic - have the strands tied individually allowing greater styling and parting options.
          Custom -made synthetic – these are created to your exact requirements but are expensive and can take several months to produce. However they will look most like your own hair.
  • Human hair wigs – can be cared for just like your own hair. They can be styled and touched up as required. Because they are manufactured from human hair, they feel more natural. However they are more expensive and a bit more maintenance is required. They may also need styling by a professional.
A wig will help you maintain your self-esteem.

Shopping for wigs

Do some research on line then have a friend or family member accompany you when you go shopping for a wig.

While you can purchase wigs online, this won’t give you the opportunity of trying on the wig and checking it for comfort, suitability, etc.

Consider a wig slightly lighter than your natural hair colour. A lighter colour often gives less-than-perfect skin a welcome lift.

For warm weather use, wigs are available that have a loose mesh cap as a base. Shorter styles mean less tangling and less maintenance.

If the price is right, give some thought to buying two wigs and perhaps bangs, falls and/or hairpieces so that you will have some choice as to style and less worry about always having a clean wig.

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Caring for your wig

A good rule of thumb is to wash your hair after six to eight wearings in summer but less often in winter. Very active people will also need to wash their wigs more often.

Brush or comb straight styles gently before washing. Use a wide-spaced comb for curlier models.

Add a capful of mild conditioning shampoo to a basin of cool water. Soak the wig for two minutes, swish to remove most of the shampoo then rinse in cool, clean water. Squeeze out excess water then blot with a towel. You can soften and add lustre to your wig by rinsing it in a little wig conditioner.

Squeeze curls into place with your fingers. Don’t comb or brush wet wigs, dry out of direct sunlight and don’t use any type of heat to dry them. Let the wig dry in the air by placing it on a towel, over a wide-mouthed jar or on a wig form. Shake out the wig when dry and style if necessary. Exposure to humidity, radiators and vents could affect your wig. A hairnet will help it keep its shape.

To make wearing a wig more comfortable and to keep your wig in place, a nylon or cotton wig net, placed on the head under the wig, is a good investment. Cotton will be cooler in summer.

To put on your wig, hold it at the centre front on your forehead and place it over your scalp. There will be hooks or Velcro to adjust the fit of the wig.

Keep your ears out from under and pull the wig down at the back. Make sure the wig starts at your natural hairline. It is bound to feel strange so try it on at home and wear it for short periods to allow yourself time to become accustomed to the feel. Bangs or wisps of hair will hide the outline of the wig. Excess hair can be trimmed away.

If you have been wearing a wig and have since lost all your hair, the wig may need professional adjustment.

Turbans, scarves, hats and caps are other options which will help you feel and look your best. These items can be bought from specialist stores and may come complete with bangs, fringes, etc which enhance their appearance. Choose colours which complement your skin tone and clothing.

For anyone going through medical treatment for cancer, Look Good...Feel Better is a non-profit group which now has affiliate members throughout the world. Trained and certified experts provide help, support and some products to help cancer patients look your best at this difficult time.