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Hair Loss and Body Image

Cancer treatment can cause changes to a person's appearance which also impacts body image

Cancer treatment-related hair loss happens because chemotherapy drugs can damage hair follicles or because radiation therapy to the head causes the scalp to loss hair. Some chemotherapy drugs cause thinning hair or hair loss only on the scalp. Other drugs can cause thinning or hair loss from eyebrows, eyelashes, arms and legs and even pubic hair.

Not every patient receiving chemotherapy and/or radiation treatment will lose their hair. If loss happens, it’s typically within the first two weeks of treatment.

Concerns over body image

Depending on the type of cancer, a patient’s appearance can change beyond just hair thinning or hair loss. For many women, losing one or both breasts due to mastectomy has a profound effect on how they see themselves. Similarly, patients with cancers that impact their face (such as skin cancer or head and neck cancers) may find their appearance drastically changed.

Some of the side effects that can lead to body image concerns:

  • Hair loss
  • Scars from surgery
  • Fatigue
  • Skin changes, including rashes and burns
  • Swelling of the face, arms or legs
  • Decreased physical skills, including athletic capabilities, balance and agility
  • Loss of a body part
  • Weight loss
  • Weight gain
  • Changes in sexual function, such as infertility, early menopause, loss of sexual interest or erectile difficulties

Tips for coping with body image issues

Ask your cancer team whether or not your appearance will change due to the treatment. It’s best to be prepared in advance.

  • Discuss options for changes to your appearance:
    • Are there things you can do to make the changes less severe?
    • Are there post-treatment options (such as plastic surgery) to address significant changes?
  • Consider counseling to help manage anxiety or depression around changes to your appearance.

Hair Loss and Body Image Resources

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