Chemotherapy can save the life of someone with cancer.

But it comes with a long list of potential side effects, including one nearly everyone’s aware of – hair loss.

Chemotherapy targets rapidly growing cells – and that includes those in the hair follicles. And it may not just affect the scalp. Some people undergoing chemo lose eyebrows, eyelashes, armpit hair and hair elsewhere on their bodies.

While chemo is generally the culprit when a cancer patient loses hair, radiation – at some doses – can also lead to hair loss – particularly for those receiving radiation for head and neck cancers.

It’s hard to lose your hair. It’s like losing part of your identity. And a grieving process often accompanies the loss.

In a recent essay published in The Atlantic, breast cancer survivor Miranda Featherstone wrote, “Without hair I feel diminished, undone. My grief over my hair exceeds, I think, my grief for my disappeared breasts, or my health more generally. There are moments when I worry it will swallow me whole, moments when it inches dangerously close to despair.”

Supportive care throughout your cancer journey.

Start here

Gigi Sadorra Hair

Other people actually embrace their hair loss. Gigi Sadorra, a breast cancer patient we wrote about last fall, got a mohawk while she still had hair. Once it began to fall out, she sported a pixie. When her pixie started thinning, she wore berets and beanies.

“When I still had the mohawk, one night while taking a shower, I grabbed a handful of hair,” Sadorra said. “At that moment, it sunk in that the chemo was taking its toll. It was then that the physical reality of cancer kicked in. But slowly losing my hair … was not as traumatic as I thought it would be. I just went with the flow and got creative with the beret/beanie style because I knew it would eventually grow back. I mean, it's just hair.

“Today, my hair is growing back beautifully! It’s thicker than before, like I got a do-over! It's growing back to my natural color for my age – the salt-and-pepper look. I’ve had compliments on the color and how soft it is; it’s like petting a puppy. The more it grows, the wavier it's getting. I’m excited to see how it'll look by summer.”

Dr. Anastasia Tsagianni

We talked to Dr. Anastasia Tsagianni, an oncologist and hematologist with Novant Health Cancer Institute - Forsyth in Winston-Salem, about hair loss – a side effect of cancer treatment many people dread. Note: Tsagianni (pronounced Sah-gee-ah-nee) treats people with different cancer types, including women with breast cancer.

How common is the worry about hair loss among your patients?

It’s so common that I now bring it up in an initial discussion with a patient. I know my patient is likely to ask, so I go ahead and mention the elephant in the room.

Is there a way you can tell patients what the likelihood is that they’ll lose their hair?

The chance of hair loss depends on the type of chemotherapy a patient is on. There are certain types that will almost certainly lead to hair loss, and I want patients to be aware if that’s the case. For instance, taxane (Taxol or Taxotere) is commonly used in breast cancer, and it causes temporary hair loss almost universally.

Top scores for safety in NC