There are three side effects that patients find most distressing when undergoing cancer treatments – nausea, vomiting and hair loss. For many people with mesothelioma, hair loss can be one of the most emotional-charged aspects of the disease. Particularly for women, hair is part of one’s self identity and its loss can make one feel self-conscious or embarrassed. Hair loss is also a visual sign of cancer treatment which can stigmatize patients. Once hair starts to fall out because of cancer treatment, it is hard for patients to hide the reality of their condition to those close to them and to strangers.
Hair loss does not occur because of mesothelioma but rather as a result of radiation or chemotherapy treatments. Even then, the hair loss depends on the type of radiation or chemotherapy and the dosage level.2 Not all mesothelioma patients receive these treatments, but they are among the most common treatments for cancer. Hair does not typically all fall out immediately after treatment. Rather, it falls out in clumps and thins gradually.
Many people choose to shave their heads before treatment or once hair loss begins. This can be very practical as hair loss can occur anywhere, such as by leaving clumps of hair at the grocery store or work. This only makes the psychological distress worse due to embarrassment and feeling as if you have lost control of your body. However, not all mesothelioma patients choose to shave their head. In this case, it is crucial that patients treat their hair and scalp with care. They should avoid excessive brushing, styling, and washing. Anything which could irritate the scalp should also be avoided, such as hats or chemical products, as this can exacerbate hair loss.3
Wigs for Mesothelioma Patients
Today, mesothelioma patients coping with hair loss have many options available to them in regards to wigs. Wigs can be very inexpensive at less than $20 though a realistic-looking, quality wig will often cost much more. The price of wigs varies depending on whether the hair is real or synthetic and also whether it is machine made or handmade. Handmade wigs from real hair can cost thousands of dollars. Wigs can also be custom made for fit, style and color. Most insurance providers will pay for at least one wig which they call a prosthesis.
There are benefits to both synthetic and real hair wigs. Synthetic wigs are more durable and are much easier to maintain. They also will last longer than a real hair wig. Depending on the material that the synthetic wig is made from, there may be some limitations to how it can be styled. The main benefit of real hair wigs is that they look more natural. They can be washed and styled just like real hair.
Getting used to wearing a wig can be difficult at first. Because cancer treatments may make the scalp sensitive, a wig can also cause scalp irritation, pain or rashes. Cancer patients looking for wigs should wear ones which have soft linings. There are specialty wig shops which have “medical prostheses” tailored to the needs of cancer patients.
With the right attitude, choosing a wig can be a lot of fun. Patients shouldn’t feel limited to finding wigs which match their previous hair styles or colors. There are wigs in virtually every possible style and even unusual colors available. One can look at the character Samantha from the show Sex and the City for inspiration. When she was unable to find a wig which exactly matched her hairstyle before chemotherapy, she opted for the opposite extreme of a bright pink bob wig instead.
Other Hair Loss Solutions
Not all mesothelioma patients coping with hair loss will want to wear a wig. With some creativity, one can find many other solutions such as scarves or hats. In fact, scarves are interesting head adornments and you have a lot of leeway as to how it’s tied. They are stylish, come in an endless variety of colors and prints, and are soft. It is important to keep in mind that the scalp becomes sensitive from chemotherapy treatment and only headwear with soft linings should be worn.
Of course, there are also people who simply choose to go bald and not worry about covering up their scalp with a wig or scarf. The baldness becomes a symbol of courage in the face of a terrible disease. These people become inspirations to others dealing with major health problems.
1 de Boer-Dennert, M., de Wit R., Schmitz, p. I., Djontono, J., Beurden, V., Stoter, G., and Verweij, J. Patient perceptions of the side-effects of chemotherapy: the influence of 5HT3 antagonists (1997) British Journal of Cancer, v76:8, 1055-1061.
2 Chemotherapy and hair loss: What to expect during treatment. (Jan 2010) Retrieved from Mayo Clinic at: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/hair-loss/CA00037
3 Side Effects and Ways to Manage Them – Hair Loss (2011) Retrieved from the National Cancer Institute at: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/coping/chemotherapy-and-you/page7#SE7