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Learn About Hair

Hair growth feels almost magical: how, in a few days, it can spout as if from nothing. It is a source of exploration, a feature of identity.

Perhaps you passed through the definitive hair chapters of growing up: short, to long, red... accidental green. How many of us drew horror-filled gasps from parents at the misshapen chopped locks? As a seven year old, I shaved both sides of my head, not anticipating the consequent Mohican. And I hacked at my three year old brother’s fringe with abandon. Hair is a feature of being human and we take it for granted. So when we lose it, or watch as it thins, and dries, it isn’t easy.

Let’s start by distilling some of the magic and introduce science. Hair is made up of keratin, fatty acids, and trace elements. Keratin is the protein in each hair strand that when fed from the scalp makes it grow. This process happens under the skin in the hair follicle, the only living part of the hair. This follicle is also responsible for providing hair’s natural oil and also causing goose bumps! Each hair grows through an independent growth cycle and can stay intact for 5 years. A healthy head sheds about 100 hairs a day as part of this cycle. Hair has a protective outer layer, so beware products promising miracle cures to hair’s makeup. That protective layer keeps practically everything outside the hair, repelling water, so that most products don’t penetrate it and just give the appearance of having any impact.

If you’ve been through chemo, your hair might be worst hit. Chemo drugs and radiotherapy are designed to target the fastest growing cells and out of all of them, hair is the Olympic runner.If you’ve had radiotherapy to the brain, that’s not conducive to hair growth either. But in 99% of cases, hair grows back after treatment. Looking at the 1%, this tends to be those who’ve experienced many years of strong chemo, causing hair follicles to ‘burn out’ and shut down.

So what will happen to you? Hair growth will be uneven at first – growing back at varying speeds. Your crown may grow slower than the rest, leaving you with a temporary middle-aged bald patch. It may grow back a different colour or a different texture – grey turns brown, brown turns red, straight turns curly. Over time, your hair will probably return to its former pre-cancer state.

On average, hair grows around half an inch (1.25cm) a month. Due to the depletion of nutrients, it may take longer to grow post-chemo, but once your body recovers, it’ll pick up speed again.

If you lost your hair after brain radiation, regrowth may take a little longer. It can be four to six months before an inch appears and up to 12 months for a full head of hair. Your new hair will probably be thinner than it was, and you may have a small bald spot at the focus of the radiation.

All chemotherapy and recovery is different, but here is an approximate hair regrowth timeline post-chemo: 

There are strategies for those of us with hair damage – whether you have hair-thinning, weak hair, or are impatiently waiting for any hair to grow. And now that you know what to expect from regrowth and recovery, you can get a plan in action.

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