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Is Hair Loss A Sign of Cancer?

Katelyn Hagerty

Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 6/3/2021

Cancer is one of the most difficult and taxing diseases to treat. It can wreak havoc on the body and weaken the immune system — and just about every other system for that matter. 

It can make you tired, frail, pale and run down. But can it make you bald?

Between the scarves and the Locks of Love campaigns, we all know that hair loss during cancer is a frequent occurrence. 

But if you’re reading this, you’re probably wondering, as many people do, whether hair loss is a result of the treatments, or also of the cancer itself.

We’ve put together a comprehensive look at the cancer/hair loss question. But first let’s start with what you probably already know.

Hair Loss During Cancer Treatment

Most of the time, as you might already be aware, the cause of hair loss for cancer patients isn’t the cancer itself, but the treatment. 

According to a 2015 review, approximately 65 percent of cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy experience hair loss during treatment. 

That’s a huge percentage of the population who experience the same, severe side effect. 

The specific mechanism of hair loss from chemotherapy is actually a type of hair loss called telogen effluvium. 

Telogen effluvium is a hair loss disorder in which one of the three phases of your hair’s growth cycle is interrupted.

The primary phase of the hair growth cycle is called the anagen phase. This is where the hair grows, and 90 percent of your hair should be in this phase at any time. 

After that it enters a rest phase, called the catagen phase, before then entering hibernation in the telogen phase.

As many as nine percent of your hair follicles could be in this phase normally — more is a cause for concern. 

More, as you may have guessed, is the definition of telogen effluvium — a sudden shift in the number of follicles actively hibernating on your head. 

Visually, it looks like even thinning across your entire scalp, making your hair look sparse. 

Telogen effluvium is typically caused by a stressor, which could be surgery, major trauma, extreme stress or chemotherapy.

Cancer and Hair Loss

Hair loss is not a typical disease symptom, but there are several diseases where hair loss can occur. Psoriasis, certain thyroid issues, severe deficiencies, syphilis and polycystic ovary syndrome can all cause hair loss.

That said, it’s not a common occurrence in cancers. 

That’s not to say it never happens. There are indeed some very rare ways that hair loss could be caused by the cancer itself. 

Some cancers are so rare that the numbers simply aren’t there to determine a link. One example where a link has been found is with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. 

In rare cases where the disease spreads to the skin, it has been known to cause hair loss. 

It’s an extreme version of the irritation that the disease can cause to issues, which most frequently reflects as more mild symptoms, like itching.

In most cases, hair loss from these causes will correct itself after the disease is confronted, though scarring can sometimes be permanent. 

But in pretty much all of these cases, addressing the root disease is far more important of a priority than worrying about your hair. 

Same goes with cancer.

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Treating Cancer Treatment Hair Loss 

The good news is that, generally speaking, telogen effluvium corrects itself. 

Essentially, when the stressor (in this case, the chemo) is stopped, the follicles in telogen effluvium will gradually return to the anagen phase as they’re ready and no longer inhibited.

Of course, as long as your cancer is active, your first priority should be treating it, and so as much as you may not want to lose your hair, chemo is almost certainly a necessary evil. 

But there are other things you can do during and after treatment to help the problem. 

During the treatment, the most important thing you can do is simply take care of yourself. 

Reduce additional stressors — physical and psychological — from your life. Take it easy, and do things that are good for your body. 

Eat well — seriously. Evidence suggests that alopecia during chemotherapy may be exacerbated by poor nutritional health. 

As exhausting as it may be, taking care of your health during this most taxing period makes it all the more important that you follow through. 

After the chemo has concluded, the story is different. Your hair will begin to return to normal on its own, but helping it along is an option.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, two products in particular can help you reduce and potentially reverse hair loss: finasteride and minoxidil. They work slightly differently, and complement each other well in most cases.

Studies show that, when taken daily, finasteride can reduce dihydrotestosterone (DHT) levels by as much as 70 percent. 

DHT is a hormone in the body and is the main threat to your hair where male pattern baldness is concerned — blocking it can help drastically reduce hormone-based hair loss.

We’ve talked more about DHT’s role in hair loss in our guide to DHT and male hair loss.

Minoxidil, however, encourages dormant follicles to grow again. 

The topical agent has been shown to increase thickness and hair count by about 18 percent over a 48-week period, according to one study. 

Furthermore, lifestyle changes may aid in the regrowth effort. In addition to continuing to reduce stress and eat a nutritional diet, things like the right shampoo can benefit you, if it has the right combination of ingredients. 

Check out our What to Look For in a Men’s Hair Loss Shampoo guide for more.

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The Bottom Line on Cancer and Hair Loss

We know that losing your hair is a hard thing to cope with, particularly during an even tougher experience like fighting cancer. 

If we can leave you with two takeaways, it’s this:

First, for the largest majority of people, hair loss from cancer treatment is not permanent. 

And since most of the hair loss experienced during cancer is from the treatment itself, you have a very, very small chance of not regrowing your hair. 

The second thing we need to remind you: hair is not who you are. Losing your hair has the chance to sap your confidence and really undermine those recovery efforts. Don’t let it. 

Own it. Own the look, own the chance to try new hats — don’t let it own you. 

We know that if you’re currently in cancer treatment, you already have one or more healthcare professionals walking you through everything. 

That said, if you’re feeling anxious or depressed because of any issues related (or unrelated) to cancer treatment, talk to someone. 

Just because your body is getting all the attention doesn’t mean your mind doesn’t deserve some, too. 

If you’re feeling down, talk to an online therapy provider. Not ready to talk to someone? We have more resources for you. 

Check out our Mental Health Guide for links to more stories and options for treatment.

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This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

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