Hair Loss Part 3: How to Care for Your Hair and Scalp After Chemo
Brilliantly: After treatment, how do long-term therapies affect hair health and growth?
Sonya: A lot of women, myself included, think hair growth will go back to normal after treatment. The truth is that many cancer survivors continue taking medication for 1 year, 5 years, even 10 years. It’s important to understand the dynamic between ending chemo and starting a different drug and how that impacts recovery.
Tamoxifen, one of the common long-term treatments, can cause hair thinning or loss. It usually levels off after the first year, but it is possible that the thinning can last for as long as you are on the medication. As scalp hair starts growing back, lashes or even eyebrows can still be falling out or slower to grow.
Brilliantly: Is there anything that women who experience this side effect can take to help encourage hair growth?
Sonya: A few supplements you can consider are biotin, zinc, vitamin C and folic acid. These are the building blocks for your hair and can help offset some of the negative effects ongoing treatment, like Tamoxifen or Lupron, can have on hair regrowth. It’s a nice boost for your hair post-treatment as long as your oncologist is okay with it!
Brilliantly: Yes! It’s important to always ask your doctor, even after treatment, before starting new supplements.
Sonya: I asked my doctor about it months after completing chemotherapy. I wasn’t aware of all the things that I could be doing for my hair back then. My oncologist, rightfully so, had warned me against certain vitamins and supplements during treatment. But there are many options you can explore with your doctor for your hair.
Brilliantly: It takes a while before you can see the results, right? Are there beauty products that can support the supplements?
Sonya: I could see, especially when I stopped coloring my hair blonde and let it grow out, how biotin was helping my hair growth.
Although my lashes and brows were weak initially, two years post-chemo I can see them getting stronger and longer. Leaning on a lash and brow serum has helped move along the process considerably. I got the idea to try this out from Cancer Fashionista, who blogs about all things fashion, beauty and lifestyle for cancer patients. I also regularly conditioned my brows and lashes with castor oil at night.
Supplements alone can’t jump start healthy hair growth. You need to support your supplements with nourishing products and foods.
Brilliantly: How do you decide which brand of biotin, or any other supplement, to take?
Sonya: There are a lot of pharmacies near my neighborhood, so I like to do my research in person and online.
I look carefully for companies that work without dyes or gelatin, and those that use organic and vegan ingredients, whenever possible. My goal is to use clean supplements that complement a healthy diet.
That's how I found the Sports Research brand which is clean and made with coconut oil. I take the 10,000 mcg dosage, but they also have a 5,000 mcg serving if you want to test it out first. I read the reviews and did some due diligence on my own, and, of course, took recommendations from other survivors. It’s been working well for me so far.
Brilliantly: Good advice. Also, just an aside, your eyebrows look amazing.
Sonya: Thank you! I tried microblading, which is not something I ever thought I would do before cancer. Until I was sitting on the table ready to get microbladed, I did not totally understand what the process would be like.
Brilliantly: Is it painful?
Sonya: It is uncomfortable, but the beautician works with multiple applications of numbing cream, like Lidocaine, to minimize any pain. You can also take a painkiller ahead of time if you are extra sensitive, as long as it’s not a blood-thinning one.
Remember to talk to your doctor before you book an appointment. Usually, you have to wait, at least three months after treatment. If you're on Herceptin or other hormone-based therapies, like Tamoxifen, that might impact your skin's ability to retain the color, and you might need touch ups more often.
Brilliantly: Was microblading worth it?
Sonya: I think so. I really believe in trying out new things when it comes to beauty and fashion, especially if it impacts your self-confidence. If it is something that makes me happy when I’m all by myself looking in the mirror, I am willing to try it out! Not to mention, the added convenience of not having to fill in your brows while you wait for them to grow back.
Brilliantly: We had a question from the community about lash extensions. Have you ever had them?
Sonya: I've tried both lash extensions and lash lift. Lash extension is when they take strands of artificial lashes and stick them in the gaps between your natural lashes. The artificial lashes can be made of many different natural and synthetic materials, and come in different sizes. An extension application can last 4 to 6 weeks on average.
Playing around with false lashes could be a good way to see how you feel about that look before committing your time and money to an extension. False lashes are also a great way to play up your look for a special occasion if you are not interested in longer lasting procedures or are hesitant due to cost.
Brilliantly: How is a lash lift different from extensions?
A lash lift mimics the effect of an eyelash curler, making your natural lashes bend upwards, leaving your lashes looking longer and your eyes more open and bright. A lift can last 2 to 3 weeks on average.
The lift is closer to a natural look since you are working with your natural lashes only. However, if your lashes are scarce due to treatment, or if you are interested in a more dramatic look, it may make sense to try a lash extension instead.
Brilliantly: Do you think either of those are damaging to the new hairs that are just coming in?
Sonya: The lashes coming back are fine, like baby hair. And while these techniques all pull and tug at the hairs, if done by a professional, they are not harmful.
Keep in mind when it’s time to remove your false lashes or extensions, it is very important to be gentle. I’d suggest using a natural coconut oil or olive oil and massaging very gently. The same goes for removing mascara.
Brilliantly: That makes sense — no scrubbing those fine hairs, even when removing your makeup. Do you have any tips for finding a good mascara?
Sonya: I do! I’ve actually gone from never wearing mascara to wearing it regularly. I didn’t make a habit of the extensions or lifts, I just use a primer with a good mascara to get extra volume.
I really love using all natural and organic products especially around sensitive areas like the eyes. SaltyGirl Beauty is a recent favorite of mine because they make a nourishing but smudge proof mascara that is great for everyday wear. And the brand was created by an oncology nurse and a survivor who are sisters - check them out!
Brilliantly: Anything else to watch out for when heading to the salon for lash services?
Sonya: Make sure you go to a clean, reputable place. And be sure to discuss any sensitivities with your aesthetician ahead of time so they have the right products and materials for you at your appointment.
Brilliantly: There’s been quite a lot of talk about hair dye as it relates to breast cancer. Do you dye your hair? Do you think it’s safe?
Sonya: When my hair first came in, I dyed it blonde. I wanted to have a little fun with it. I think it’s critical to find fun wherever you are in this journey and find a way to make it your own.
When I dyed my hair, it turned out a little different from what I had in mind. I wanted a Charlize Theron, ice blonde kind of a look. But, everyone has a different hair undertone, and so your color picks up differently depending on the undertone of your hair. Mine turned out a little bit of a darker blonde, but it was definitely a fun look that I kept up for a while.
It took a lot of maintenance and in the end I decided to go back to my natural color just before 2020. Regarding safety, I felt like stopping the coloring was the right decision for my hair and my health, and I'm pretty happy with that decision.
I know that there was some research recently about how hair dye can be harmful to women, and that there may be a link between hair dye and breast cancer.
Brilliantly: Yes, I saw that study and from what I read, it was a bit inconclusive.
Sonya: Yes, we should take every caution we can toward our health but also remember that these studies should be viewed with a critical eye. Especially since new information is always being learned. I love how Linda Tantawi, CEO of Susan G. Komen Greater NYC, explained it at the Tamron Hall Show.
Brilliantly: When hair first starts coming in, it’s often curly, or a different texture or color from the original hair. I know many women struggle with what to do with it.
Sonya: Just like the rest of the process, you’re constantly seeing yourself in a new way. That’s challenging.
Brilliantly: Of course. Do you have suggestions for how women who’ve never had curly hair before can tame it and feel confident?
Sonya: The amazing thing about curly hair is that you really don't have to do that much to it for it to look good. You don't have to go through the complicated styling and taming as much as you might think. It’s more about finding the right products that keep the curls together.
Brilliantly: What are some must-haves to keep your curls manageable?
Sonya: I consider myself a bit of a curl expert, because I have had very curly hair my entire life. I have tried every product you can imagine! After diagnosis and now with a new head of hair, I am definitely leaning toward “clean” hair products to support my curls, and I only dabble in a couple of products overall.
The key is that any product you use on your curls should be hydrating and nourishing. This will make your curls easier to manage and make your hair appear healthier.
My go-to products are from a brand called Innersense Organic Beauty.
I discovered Innersense last year at Warrior Revolution and have been in love ever since! Their hydrating shampoo and conditioner, as well as their hydrating curl cream are the only products that touch my hair. My hair is happier and healthier for it.
Washing your hair as little as possible (once or twice a week) will allow it to retain it’s natural oils and moisture. When you do wash it, use a hydrating shampoo and conditioner, and treat it afterward with either an oil blend, straight coconut oil, or a curl cream.
Brilliantly: How do you use curl cream? What are some curl styling do’s and don’ts?
Sonya: Styling your hair with curl cream is pretty easy. The best time for styling is when you come out of the shower and your hair is wet.
Get one or two small pumps of curl cream mixed with a few drops of water in your palm. Then gently work it through your damp hair. Now would be the time to comb your hair with a detangling comb, then gently scrunch up your curls again to get your volume back. My favorite thing about curl cream is that it creates a soft and natural finish on your hair.
You do not want to comb dry hair or detangle with a comb that is not made specifically for this. Doing this will lead to frizz and breakage.
Also, curls are easy to maintain. You can wrap them in a satin wrap and sleep on them, and they will still look nice the next morning . You'll see that you can actually go without washing for a couple of days and not have to worry about it, which is also better for your hair health also.
Brilliantly: After a few days, it can look a bit tired. What then?
Sonya: You might want to cover it up with a head wrap and try leaving a little short ponytail out the back or just bring a few curls out the sides. The ringlets look great with a head wrap.
Brilliantly: I agree! Also, I know many women struggle with when to get it cut, or don’t want to get the first cut after it comes in even though shaping it can make a huge difference in the overall look. When is the right time to talk to a stylist and make a plan for growing it out?
Sonya: It's definitely great to connect with a stylist early and just keep that conversation open because you will go through an awkward phase, the lovely mullet phase. No one likes it, but you kind of have to go through it to get that longer hair. You can search Instagram or Pinterest for looks that play around with fashionable pins or barrettes that suit your style during the transitions.
Brilliantly: Where is a good place to look for cute short hairstyles and inspirational looks?
Sonya: There are a ton of great YouTube tutorials on how to style short hair.
And don’t forget, there are women right here in our community who have done the great hair experiment so you don’t have to. Check out survivors-turned-bloggers like My Cancer Chic who have tons of great advice on styling a short-do post-chemo.
Brilliantly: I love that you don’t have to look too far to find this supportive and encouraging information.
Sonya: Absolutely! And I am glad we can make all of this available in one place. I certainly wish this existed when I was going through treatment.
This dialogue belongs to a three part series.