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How To Cope With Hair Loss From Leukemia Treatment

Medically reviewed by Todd Gersten, M.D.
Written by Victoria Menard
Posted on June 1, 2022

After being diagnosed with leukemia, many people worry about losing their hair. Treatments for leukemia can cause a person to lose clumps or all of their hair. Although hair usually regrows after treatment, losing hair can be upsetting. Hair loss can affect a person’s self-esteem, adding to the daily stresses of life with cancer.

Not everyone who has leukemia loses their hair. But if you do, there are many ways to cope with hair loss.

What Is Hair Loss With Leukemia Like?

Many people with leukemia experience hair loss as a side effect of cancer treatment. Even though losing hair is a sign that you are taking steps to treat your leukemia, it can be hard to handle.

As many members describe, leukemia treatments typically cause hair to fall out in clumps. People undergoing chemotherapy, radiotherapy, or other treatments may find that their hair comes out when they brush or wash it. “I’ve had CLL for five years and am taking my medication every three months … Is hair loss a possible symptom or result of the cancer?” asked one member. “I’m losing lots with every shampoo.”

“My hair was long and full, but I had to get it short,” wrote one member taking ibrutinib (Imbruvica). “I know it is vain, and I should be grateful to be alive, but I miss my beautiful hair!”

One member replied, “The first thing that bothered my son was him losing his hair. But after a few months of it being thin and falling out, it all grew back beautiful and shiny … You may be the 1 percent for this medicine who has hair loss, but remember you’ll also be one of a kind when your new hair grows back. Keep your head up and keep pushing.”

Another member echoed those sentiments: “I lost half my hair, but what the hell — I’m alive and feeling good.”

Some members found that their hair loss began before starting leukemia treatments. “I recall having hair loss before my AML diagnosis six years ago,” one member shared.

Some even find that they do not experience hair loss with leukemia. “I have had CLL for 15 years,” wrote one, “and have not lost any hair.”

What Causes Hair Loss in Leukemia?

In most cases, hair loss occurs as a result of leukemia treatments. Chemotherapy, radiation, targeted drugs, and immunotherapy can all lead to hair loss.

Radiation Therapy

People undergoing radiation therapy should not lose hair beyond the treated area of the body. Hair loss typically occurs within three weeks after initial radiation treatment. This hair will likely not grow back once treatment is finished unless you received low doses of radiation.

Chemotherapy

Those undergoing chemotherapy treatment experience hair loss about 65 percent of the time. Whether you will lose any hair depends on which and how many chemotherapy drugs you are given, the method of delivery, and how often you receive treatments. Most hair loss begins early in the chemotherapy cycles, two or three weeks after starting. It may happen quickly or slowly, and you may lose all your hair or just several clumps.

Some people find that certain chemotherapy drugs cause hair loss. Cytoxan (Cyclophosphamide), for instance, is a common culprit.

Targeted Drugs and Immunotherapy

Hair loss due to targeted drugs, including tyrosine kinase inhibitors for treatment of chronic myeloid leukemia, is less common. Fewer than 15 percent of people who receive targeted therapy lose their hair because of treatment.

Whether you experience hair loss depends on the targeted therapy that you are taking. For example, some studies show that imatinib (Gleevec) causes hair loss for about 4 percent of people. On the other hand, 8 percent to 13 percent of people who take nilotinib (Tasigna) experience hair loss, depending on the dose. Your hair should grow back if you lose it due to these drugs, provided the treatment is stopped.

Treating and Coping With Hair Loss in Leukemia

In most cases, hair loss from leukemia therapy is not permanent. Once your treatments are complete, you should experience regrowth relatively quickly. Occasionally, though, hair does not come back or remains thin over the long term.

You have many options for treating and coping with hair loss associated with leukemia treatment. If you’re not sure how to manage or deal with hair loss, talk with your oncology team. A health care provider can help you come up with a plan to help preserve your emotional well-being.

Planning Ahead

If you know that you will be undergoing treatment for leukemia and may lose your hair, plan ahead to help ease the adjustment. This may include:

  • Cutting your hair short so that hair loss does not change your appearance as dramatically
  • Shaving your head after hair starts to fall out so you aren’t left with clumps of hair
  • Purchasing a wig — or several, in different colors and styles — or having one made out of your own hair
  • Choosing head wraps, scarves, or other head coverings that you love, which can cover either patchy hair or baldness
  • Applying makeup to fill in your eyebrows or compensate for other hair loss

Seeking Counseling

Some people struggle with their hair loss or find that it seriously affects how they think and feel about themselves. If this is the case, ask your oncologist for a referral to a mental health professional who specializes in working with those diagnosed with leukemia and other cancers. This can be a great way to process the diagnosis as a whole and begin to feel better about your hair loss.

Get Support

If you have recently been diagnosed with leukemia, consider joining MyLeukemiaTeam. This is the social network and online community for people living with leukemia. At MyLeukemiaTeam, you can share your story, join ongoing conversations, or ask any questions you might have. Before you know it, you’ll have made new connections and found the support you need as you continue on your journey with leukemia.

How have you managed hair loss with leukemia? Do you have any tips about using head coverings or makeup? Share your story and advice in the comments below or by posting on MyLeukemiaTeam.

Posted on June 1, 2022
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Todd Gersten, M.D. is a hematologist-oncologist at the Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute in Wellington, Florida. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Victoria Menard is a writer at MyHealthTeam. Learn more about her here.

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