Understanding Impact of Mesothelioma on Hair Loss

Man balding

I guess every little girl thinks her daddy is the most handsome man in the whole world.

My father was not an exception to this rule. I have to stress, though, that Dad really was the most handsome man in the world. He was tall with dark hair, golden skin and green eyes. In the language of today’s American teenager, my Dad had “swagger.”

Richard Lloyd Barker could have been a ladies’ man, but he was busy being one lady’s main man. He and my mother were married for more than 20 years — until he died from mesothelioma in 1993 at the age of 45.

Richard Lloyd Barker in Uniform

Richard Lloyd Barker wearing his U.S. Army uniform.

Doctors diagnosed the disease in the fall of 1992. He began chemotherapy treatments in late December. Shortly after starting those treatments, his appearance changed drastically.

At first, losing his hair was a shock to my dad. He was deeply troubled when his comb pulled out that first clump of hair. Rather than let chemotherapy claim his hair, he shaved his head himself. He felt more liberated by doing it himself, making the hair loss a choice, rather than a side effect of cancer treatment.

Alopecia

Dr. Charles M. Balch, former president of the Society of Surgical Oncology, says hair loss — medically known as alopecia — is one of the most arduous side effects of cancer treatment for many patients.

My father struggled with his hair loss. I often think about what it would feel like if I lost my hair in a fight for my life. Sure, some may tell you “it’s just hair,” but for someone who has enough to worry about with a cancer diagnosis, hair loss can deliver a significant blow to one’s self-esteem.

Why does chemotherapy treatment cause hair loss?

When Dad underwent chemotherapy, I had to wonder why the treatment caused his hair to fall out. Scientific research can help us understand the pathobiology of chemotherapy-induced hair loss.

Researchers from the department of dermatology at Boston University and the Institute of Inflammation and Repair at the University of Manchester collaborated on a study to review chemotherapy-induced alopecia.

People lose their hair from chemotherapy because the treatment itself impairs hair growth on a cellular level, the researchers wrote. Chemotherapy also negatively impacts DNA-damage responses to hair growth. Essentially, chemotherapy treatment damages hair cells that are currently growing, and damage to the DNA causes it to tell the body to stop growing new hair.

Managing Chemotherapy-Induced Alopecia

Because hair loss can be traumatic, as many as 8 percent of cancer patients opt-out of chemotherapy treatment for their disease.

Making a decision to undergo chemotherapy treatment for cancer is a personal decision. Patients and families should understand the benefits and side effects of such a treatment before making that decision.

The Boston University and University of Manchester researchers suggest that people who choose to undergo chemotherapy treatment should consider seeking professional psychological counseling to help deal with the shock of losing hair.

They also suggest exploring wigs and other head coverings can be beneficial.

Tips for Dealing with Hair Loss

There are many options regarding hair loss for someone who decides to undergo chemotherapy treatment.

For example, when my father started losing his hair, he took the initiative to shave his head. He found the notion empowering. However, some people may want to make an effort to hang on to their hair a bit longer.

Many of these tips are also effective for people who have completed treatment and want to take care of their newly regrown hair:

  • Use the right hair products: Balch says using hair care products that contain irritants such as salicylic acid and henna can aggravate the scalp, cause further hair loss and deter regrowth.
  • Overstyling: Styling your hair while you are trying to hang on to it a little longer or nursing new growth can be detrimental to hair growth. Styling hair can also make it fall out faster for patients undergoing chemotherapy treatments.
  • Changes in hair type: Some patients may find their new hair has a different texture from their pre-treatment hair. If this is your experience, you may want to consult with your stylist about specific advice on how you might care for your new hair.
  • Wigs: Some people use wigs temporarily while their hair regrows after treatment. Wigs are now available in an array of colors.

Most any treatment option has side effects.

Chemotherapy is proven to be effective in treating cancer, but the alopecia associated with it can be stressful. Understanding the options available to you can be the first step in making the decision to undergo treatment.

  1. Paus, R., Haslam, I.S., Sharov, A.A., & Botchkarev, V. (2013, February). Pathobiology of chemotherapy-induced hair loss. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Iain_Haslam/publication/235390541_Pathobiology_of_chemotherapy-induced_hair_loss/links/0c96052c69a3d76d04000000.pdf
  2. Patient Resource Center. (2015). Cancer Guide (9th ed.). Overland Park, Kansas: PRP Patient Resource Publishing.

Melanie is currently pursuing a Master's degree at the University of the Cumberlands. She has a Bachelor of Science in psychology from the University of Phoenix. Her father was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 1992. She is dedicated to writing about her unique experience with the rare disease.

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