Chemotherapy is the use of anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs used to destroy cancer cells. There are over 50 different chemotherapy drugs and some are given on their own, but often several drugs may be combined, this is known as combination chemotherapy. The type of chemotherapy you are given for your cancer depends on many things, particularly the type of disease you have, where in the body it started, what the cancer cells look like under the microscope and whether they have spread to other parts of the body.
How do they work?
Chemotherapy drugs interfere with the ability of a cancer cell to divide and reproduce itself. As the drugs are carried in the blood, they can reach cancer cells all over the body. The chemotherapy drugs are taken up by dividing cells, including some normal cells such as those in the lining of the mouth, the bone marrow, the hair follicles and the digestive system. Healthy cells can repair the damage caused by chemotherapy but cancer cells cannot so they eventually die. Chemotherapy is used to cure cancer, reduce the chance of it coming back and to control cancer.
Different chemotherapy drugs cause different side effects, and some people may have very few. Reactions from chemotherapy can vary from treatment to treatment. The main areas of your body that may be affected by chemotherapy are those where normal cells rapidly divide and grow, such as:
- Mouth - sore mouth and mouth ulcers, can also cause taste change, more salty, bitter or metallic
- Digestive system - make you feel sick or actually be sick (vomit), however, there are now treatments too prevent and control this. Can also cause diarrhoea and constipation and loss of appetite
- Skin - dryness and discolouration, any rashes should be reported to your doctor
- Hair - complete or partial hair loss
- Nerves - tingling and numbness in hands and feet (pins and needles)
It is important to remember that almost all side effects are short term and will gradually disappear once treatment has stopped.
Your hair may even begin to grow back before you finish your treatment. At first the hair is fine but you will probably have a full head of hair after 3-6 months. You may find that your new hair is curlier or finer than it was before, it may also be a different colour. Very rarely after high doses of chemotherapy does hair not grow back, but this is unusual. It is very important that hair is looked after. Below are some tips to help:
- Use only gentle hair products, such as mild or baby shampoo, to prevent dryness of the hair and scalp
- Brush your hair gently - using a soft baby brush
- Use wide-toothed combs
- Wear a hair net, soft cap or turban on your head overnight to catch loose hairs
- Avoid using excessive heat from hair dryers or heated products, as this can over dry the hair and make it break
- Avoid plaiting your hair or wearing it in a tight band, as this too can damage and break hair
- Avoid sleeping in hair rollers
- A poor diet, stress and alcohol can make the condition of your hair worst, so eating aswell as you can with plenty of fruit and vegetables, lots of water and alcohol in moderation, avoiding stress, if possible can help to keep your hair in good condition
- Gently massaging the scalp may improve the blood supply to hair follicles
- Avoid perming hair as this can make it more dry and brittle
Only use tints or hair dyes made of natural colourants
After treatment has ended and hair starts to grow back the scalp may become scaly. This is due to dryness of the scalp. If the hair is short, you can wash the hair and scalp with aqueous cream, which can be used instead of soap to produce a lather. It is best to avoid medicated soaps as these are unnecessary and can irritate the scalp. once your hair is in good condition you can do what ever you please with it. In the meantime, one practical way of coping with hair loss is to wear a wig or hairpiece.
Nowadays, lots of people including celebrities are wearing them for fashion and they are not seen as a big deal to wear. They come in a variety of different styles and colours and are now much more natural looking compared to the past. They are made of human or synthetic hair or a combination of both. Nurses can arrange for a wig fitter to visit you and help you choose a style and colour that suits you best. The wig specialists understand that this is a hard time for you, and will consider your feelings. They will do all you can to make you feel comfortable. Currently, a free wig is supplied on the NHS if you are a patient in the hospital when the wig is supplied. Other types of headwear available are:
- Hat, headbands or bandanas with attached hair
- Hair extensions