October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The purpose is to increase public awareness about the disease and to teach women (and their loved ones,) about the importance of early detection, detection methods and much more. The most common form of cancer affecting women is breast cancer. Every year, roughly one of eight women is diagnosed with breast cancer. Thanks to early detection, more accurate screening methods and increased awareness, most women now survive. To ensure a woman’s survival, and to minimize the chance of recurrence, doctors opt to use different types of therapies, one of which is chemotherapy.
The human body is made up of millions of cells. The normal life of those cells is one of controlled life, growth and death. When the control mechanism goes haywire, cells grow and divide at a rapid rate. The result is the development of a growth abnormality known as a tumor. Tumors that don’t grow and spread to other parts of the body are considered non-cancerous or benign tumors. Only rarely are benign tumors considered life-threatening. A malignant tumor is one in which the cancerous tumor grows and spreads to other parts of the body, killing healthy cells. Malignant tumors can be life-threatening.
Breast cancer occurs in either ducts or glands. Lobular carcinoma is the term used to describe breast cancer that originates in the lobules — or the milk-producing glands. When breast cancer spreads beyond the area of origin, it is deemed “infiltrating” or “invasive.” When breast cancer is confined to the original place, it is referred to as “in-situ,” from the Latin which literally means “on-site,” or “in that place.”
What Lies Ahead
Depending on the situation, a doctor may choose to give a woman chemotherapy. Often, the oncologist decides that chemotherapy is the best way to prevent the cancer from recurring. The prospect of undergoing chemotherapy may be scary, but learning about the treatment, how it works, what it involves, and all of the possible side effects may help patients adjust more easily. It may also help them deal with the side effects, some of which are inevitable and quite unpleasant.
How Chemotherapy Works
The medications used in chemotherapy regimens are designed to target the specific cells that divide too quickly. In order to stop the growth of cancer cells, chemotherapy drugs must spread throughout the entire body. As the chemo drugs spread throughout the body, some healthy cells, including hair follicle cells that also divide rapidly may become the victims of collateral damage.
Hair loss or “alopecia” is one of the typical side effects of chemotherapy. Hair growth and other aspects of hair health are controlled by rapidly dividing cells in the hair follicles. Chemotherapy goes after cells that divide quickly, but it doesn’t necessarily distinguish between the healthy cells and the cancerous cells. As a result, breast cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy almost always lose their hair.
Understanding Chemotherapy-Related Hair Loss
Hair loss from chemo is typically temporary and re-growth normally begins about two to three months after the completion of chemotherapy. Many women find it helpful to prepare for hair loss before it happens, largely because it’s easier to start to deal with the feelings associated with the loss more gradually. With some types of chemotherapy, hair loss can begin within two weeks of the start of treatment and some women experience it sooner. Many women find it helpful to cut their hair before beginning chemotherapy so they don’t have to deal with the shock and pain of watching their hair fall out by the handful. Once the chemo chemicals are no longer active there are some important steps that women can take to encourage faster growth of their hair. I have an article How To Make Your Hair Grow Faster which is made to order for breast cancer survivors.