As a cancer survivor, I experienced the side effects of chemotherapy. My straight blonde hair came back dark brown and curly.
As I start my chemotherapy regimen, I have already researched my type of cancer, the drugs I will be taking, the side effects, and so on. So now what do I do? I decided to research what happens post-treatment. My hair will fall out, but it will also grow back. That started to fascinate me because there were all kinds of stories flying around about the condition of your hair—the altered pigment, straight becomes curly, and curly becomes straight. I needed to get some straight (or curly) information to satisfy my curiosity.
The information below is a grouping of facts that I gathered by talking to my oncology team of nurses and doctors and through my own research on websites such as Mayo Clinic.
What are chemo curls?
When hair that was straight or just a little wavy pre-chemo grows back in tight little curls, it is called chemo curls. For some folks, this may be a dream come true, but for others, it is a nightmare. The crazy thing here is not only the phenomenon of once straight hair growing out curly, it is also that scientist don’t know why this happens. Not yet anyhow.
What might cause chemo curls?
Chemotherapy drugs enter the body to fight and kill fast-growing cancerous cells and they do. However, they are ‘blind’ to healthy fast-growing cells and attack those too. This is what causes our hair to fall out. The chemotherapy attacks the cells responsible for hair growth and it damages the hair shaft.
My hair started to fall out 10 days after my first chemo treatment for breast cancer.
Our hair starts growing from a follicle or vase-shaped hole, in the basal layer of our skin. This is the same area of the skin where sweat glands are found and where new skin is generated. Our follicles are home to stem cells which are a bit like shapeshifters in Sci-Fi movies. They are able to turn themselves into anything, such as muscle or skin, but in the follicles, they morph into hair, right? Nope. That is why it is so confusing to scientists. It is the stem cells that turn into skin that migrate down into the follicle and help the follicle to generate a hair bud, just like a flower bud. Then the hair bud starts to form a hair which keeps growing until it breaks the surface of the skin. This is what scientists believe is happening but they are not a hundred percent sure. Why skin stem cells are the catalyst to the process and not hair follicle stem cells is a bit of a mystery.
It is because of all this fast cellular activity that the hair follicles become a direct victim of chemotherapy treatments. The drugs can not distinguish between healthy or cancerous cells and attacks them all. Cancer cells grow and divide rapidly as do hair follicle cells and the drug is designed to target anything that is growing at a rapid pace.
When will it grow back?
Hair will start growing back after your last chemo drug administration. When exactly, as in weeks or months, really depends on the dosage you were given and how long you were on chemo. The drugs will stay in your system for quite a while after your last treatment. Reports talk about 3 to 10 months after the last dose was given before you see regrowth. In addition to this, your body is doing damage control, and all those healthy cells that were damaged have to repair themselves. This takes time.
Once the hair follicle has been repaired you will need to be patient once more. Healthy hair only grows at a rate of around 1.25 cm, or 0.5 in, a month.
What will it look like?
Post-chemo hair is often different in texture and can be brittle. Straight hair becomes more curly and curly hair could become less or even completely straight. The hair seems to pick up some pigment and grows out darker. Often, these are temporary changes and hair reverts back to it pre-chemo ‘look’ within approximately a year or two but sometimes it doesn’t.
Science is still trying to figure out why post-chemo hair grows back to look so different from a patient’s pre-chemo hair. A theory is that due to all the attacks and subsequent damage to the follicle the DNA of the cells are altered and that may account for the change. There just isn’t a good explanation yet.
Why Do We Get Chemo Curls?
How do I treat post chemo hair?
Your hair is like a newborn baby and needs pampering.
Read More From Patientslounge
While you have no hair, your scalp is exposed to the elements and should be protected with sunscreen or headgear, such as soft hats, beanies, and scarves. Remember that your head was protected by hair previously so this skin is not used to being exposed. Unless you are a man and you were balding anyway.
We lose a lot of our body heat through our heads so covering up in colder weather will keep you warm.
Also, consider that your skin is going to be sensitive due to the chemo drugs.
This is key, your hair is going to need some serious moisturizing, perhaps to the point where you treat it with a leave-in moisturizer. You might want to consider visiting your hair salon for oil or hair mask treatments.
Be very careful. Remember the baby reference? Your hair is very delicate any harsh brushing is going to break it. If you do have chemo curls try to avoid brushes altogether, brushing tight curls will scatter them to the wind and you will look like someone from a scary movie. When it is wet, use a little lightweight gel or leave in conditioner and walk away from the mirror.
If possible, stay away from heat styling equipment such as hair dryers, hair straighteners or curling irons. Your hair will still be weak and air drying is your best option.
Hats and scarves
Honestly, if it is all just too much, remember your trusty hats and scarves. Chemo patients are crafty and tying a beautiful scarf around your delicate curls is just fine. Wearing a cute hat to hide your hair but more importantly to accent your outfit is absolutely allowed. If anyone looks at you in the street, it is because you look so darn gorgeous!
When can I color treat my hair?
This is your choice of course, but consider that your hair is still new and weak. Your follicles have been through a lot! Coloring your hair now may slow down the hair’s healing process because you are attacking it with more chemicals. Wait a little—consult your hairdresser or the beautician at your oncology center, if one is available. Talk to your oncologist team for best practices.
The chemicals that you put on your hair may react with chemicals from the chemo that is still lurking in your system. Who knows what result you may get if the two clash.
Consider some natural coloring agents instead such as Henna; maybe even try an ammonia-free color rinse. Honey is a great option to lighten hair because it has a natural peroxide in it. Mix it with some olive oil and leave in your hair for an about an hour every week. You’ll see a gradual lightening over time, and it’s good for your hair. Another idea is to add a banana to the mix to feed your locks.
Where can I find beauty advice and support as a cancer patient and survivor?
This is a non-profit program run by volunteers and volunteer cosmetologists that offer one on one teaching workshops to help cancer patients feel good about themselves while on treatment. They help with makeup, manicure, and hair consultations, and many programs will send the participant home with products from sponsoring companies.
Visit their website to see if there is a program in your area. The program is supported in 25 countries.
They have special programs for men and teens with cancer as well.
Did you have chemo curls after treatment?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2013 Celeste Wilson
Lorraine S. on June 01, 2018:
what if your hair never grows back, which happened to me.
Grace Stemple on March 05, 2018:
I would like to know if there is anything in my area
SamVogel on April 11, 2017:
There's a range of products here specifically to help hair grow back after chemo, curated from suggestions from other cancer patients, nurses, carers, family members etc. Check them out:
Vandana on February 03, 2017:
Hi I have just finished my second chemo and as I already had lost almost of my hair I decided to shave my head,my hair was really straight and silky and always wanted Curley hair so just wishing that at least something that I wished will come true out of this nasty C.....something to look forward to
Naheed on June 06, 2016:
THank you for the article, I have finished my treatment on April 29th. 2016, and it has been about 5 weeks, I can see my scalp is a little darker in colour, and realized my hair is starting to come back. I am interested in seeing what come out. I am more interested in my eyebrows growing, as I keep forgetting to put on the pencil to make them look natural. I didn't buy a wig and opted for hats and scarves. My friends all love the way I tie my scarves and I am pleased too. I like your article very much as I was curious about the hair folicals and why it falls. Good luck and wish everyone a speedy recovery.
Celeste Wilson (author) on June 24, 2013:
Hi Sunshine625, I am doing great and just finished my chemo. I am checking the mirror 3 times a day to see if any hair is growing out yet. :0). I am very excited. I will take anything, curls, grey hair or a mix. Congratulations to your husband for completing his chemo.
Linda Bilyeu from Orlando, FL on June 22, 2013:
Two months ago I said my husband ended his chemo treatment and his hair wasn't curly. About one month ago the curls began to appear. I took a photo of the back of this head so he could see the waves and he was shocked. Today I gave him a buzz cut and his curls are no more. For now. I thought of your hub and that I had to share with you. I hope you are doing well :)
Celeste Wilson (author) on May 16, 2013:
Hi Creativelycc, when it grows back it will be gorgeous! Thank you for reading my hub and all the best with your treatment.
Carrie L Cronkite from Maine on May 15, 2013:
I started losing my hair about two weeks after my first chemo treatment. I had my daughter cut it super short because it was so long and thick and would have been a mess coming out. Now I wear a wig or scarves and can't wait for the day it starts growing back. My hair is naturally curly and dark, I wonder how it's going to grow back. Thank you for this informational Hub. I wish you the best!
Celeste Wilson (author) on April 18, 2013:
So true, hair of any curly proportion is welcoming when we have been without it for a time. Thank you for reading my hub.
Rajan Singh Jolly from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA. on April 18, 2013:
The chemo curl is something I haven't heard before. All the same one would be glad the hair are growing back and most probably will revert to the pre chemo look.
Voted up and interesting.
Celeste Wilson (author) on April 17, 2013:
Oh Nell, I am pleased this hub will be useful to another person battling the big C. Thank you very much.
Nell Rose from England on April 17, 2013:
Hi celeste, I will show this to my friend who is just starting chemo, it will give her hope and probably make her smile to to see the fact that her hair will come back out curly, wishing you good health and great info, voted up, nell
Celeste Wilson (author) on April 16, 2013:
Thank you so much. It scared the living daylights out of me to begin with but as I learn more and more I feel empowered. I am going to be just like you and survive it!! Congratulations on being an awesome survivor.
Todd from Baltimore, Maryland on April 16, 2013:
as a survivor who was told to "make my arrangements" because it was not expected that i would survive, i totally relate to your article and until i finally lost my hair from my 6th round of chemo and a stem cell transplant, i can tell you that your research is absolutely accurate. nice job, very well written. my thoughts and prayers with you and all others who suffer from the side effects.
Celeste Wilson (author) on April 16, 2013:
Thank you Sunshine625, I wish your husband many, many years of health. I have just started my chemo, so my road still lies ahead of me. I hope the article helps because knowledge truly is power. Kindest wishes.
Linda Bilyeu from Orlando, FL on April 16, 2013:
Very interesting. I never heard of chemo curls. My husband's last chemo treatment, for now, was two weeks ago...I can't imagine him with curly hair. He's actually rocking the bald look now, so it's all good. I'm sure this article will help many cancer patients who lose their hair. Thank you for sharing. Wishing you good health.