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New Hair, New Look After ChemoCaring for virgin hair and the changes and emotions you might expect

Virgin hair is a term sometimes applied to hair that grows in after chemotherapy. Many women are surprised to find that the color of their hair changes, the waviness goes from straight to curly or vice versa, or has a different texture than before. This holds true not only for hair on the head but for eyelashes, eyebrows, and pubic hair. In time, the color and texture of your hair will likely return to its pre-chemo state (if you remember what that is), but until then, special care is required.1 Let's take a look at what you can expect not only with your hair, but your emotions during hair loss and regrowth.

Coping With the Loss of Hair

Many women who are newly diagnosed with breast cancer share that hair loss is the treatment side effect they fear most.2 Hair, and the way we style it plays an important role in our identity. When combined suddenly being faced with our mortality, other bodily changes such as a mastectomy or lumpectomy, and the social and relationship changes that go hand in hand with a cancer diagnosis, many women have a difficult time coping with this temporary loss of hair.3

If you or a loved one are in this situation it can be helpful to view hair loss as the last straw on the camel's back. If loved ones try to reassure women with breast cancer about their hair, they are often met with resistance and negativity. The reason for this is that hair loss is sometimes the dumping ground for a multitude of feelings and emotions associated with the diagnosis.

Head Covers

Many women choose to deal with their hair loss by covering their head with attractive hats or scarves, while others prefer wigs. A small number of women choose not to cover their heads at all. Wigs can be itchy and scratchy, not to mention hot in warm climates. Even if you purchase a wig or two, having scarves, caps, or hats available can be like putting on your pajamas when you're exhausted.

While it's often recommended that you purchase a wig that is similar to your natural hair color or slightly lighter, this time of hair loss can also be a freeing time to try new things. Perhaps you've always wanted to be a blonde or maybe a redhead. Go for it.

Choosing head coverings is not something to do alone. Not only is support critical at this time, but bringing a friend can help instill joy and often humor in a stressful situation.

Hair Regrowth After Chemotherapy

Whether you're just beginning chemotherapy, or well into your infusions, you are probably wondering when your hair will begin to grow back and if the rumors that it can change color and texture are true. Less talked about are the emotions and feelings that can arise when virgin hair begins to surface.

Physical Return of Hair

Some women may experience the beginnings of hair regrowth before treatment ends, but for many women growth appears one to three months after they stop chemo treatment.1

At first, a fuzz similar to duck down can be seen and felt on a woman’s head. At this point in time it's difficult to discern if their will be changes in the color or curl. About a month after that, real hair starts to grow at a rate normal for each woman, and at the two month mark, many woman will have roughly an inch of hair. The time it takes to grow back a full head of hair will vary from woman to woman, and will also depend on your hairstyle (whether long or short) prior to chemotherapy.

Virgin hair may closely resemble what a woman’s hair was like before chemotherapy, or, in many cases, be an entirely new look. One thing is almost always the same; it is soft hair, silky to the touch, like a baby’s hair. Often hair comes in a different color, thicker, wavy, and even curly.4

In time, your hair color and texture may return to what it was prior to chemo, but this can take time. If you opt for shorter styles, you may notice this in 6 months to 12 months.1 If you grow your hair longer, you may still have "chemo curls" for several years. In fact, it's not uncommon for women who dreaded curls to mourn the loss of the curls when it eventually happens. Fortunately, it's easy to make changes to your hair color or style should you wish to do so in the future!

Emotions During Hair Regrowth

Many women describe the time from the end of chemotherapy treatment to the spotting of the first hair growth as both an anxious and exciting time.

For most women, their new hair is proof positive that hair does grow back. Having hair again makes women feel attractive to themselves and confident that they are attractive to others. For many, hair growth confirms they are on the road to wellness; that they are truly a cancer survivor.

Yet, just as hair (or lack of hair) can be the focus onto which feelings without a home get dumped, the regrowth of hair is sometimes a focus for worries and concerns. When treatment is finished women are excited, but frequently experience a letdown. After being monitored so closely by healthcare professionals, it can be very disconcerting when visits are less frequent. Thoughts of the future also enter more clearly, as less energy is invested in dealing with day-to-day treatment. The fear of recurrence no matter the stage is fairly universal.

Sometimes these fears and concerns are expressed as being hair related. For example, a woman may express frustration with her new chemo curls or the new color of her hair, when actually she is really anxious about whether the cancer may return.

Caring for Virgin Hair

It is important to be gentle with new hair, and there are several suggestions that are often recommended.

Products and Styling Products

It's recommended that people avoid if at all possible styling products or curling and straightening devices. Coloring or bleaching could damage new hair as well as irritate a scalp that is still sensitive from breast cancer treatment.

Brushing and Drying

It is best to avoid strenuous or harsh brushing. You may wish to purchase a brush that you could use on a baby, as your hair will have a similar texture. If you use a hair dryer at all, use a low heat setting.

When to Trim and Cut

New hair may be improved through regular cutting by removing the ends. It is important not to stress the hair by putting hair in tight, rolled-up styles.

Some women ask about hair extensions and weaving to add volume and length to new hair. This may not be the best solution as weaving can damage hair follicles; hair extensions and weaving can put a strain on existing hair.2

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