Aug. 20--Sharon Hanson has been battling ovarian cancer for nearly four years,
and though she is counteracting some effects of the illness by exercising and
singing in a church choir, a major surgery and chemotherapy hurt her appearance
"I have lost my hair twice, my eyebrows and my eyelashes," said the St. Simons
Island resident, as she reviewed her journey with cancer remission and
recurrence. She is now taking a drug that allows her hair to regrow, as well as
her eyelashes. It has slowly allowed her to wean herself off her bandana,
baseball cap and wig -- items that have helped bolster her self-esteem.
"You'll (always) feel better if you like the way you look and (losing your hair)
does take away what you think makes you look pretty. But I never felt like I
should go into hiding. I'd go to the gym without a bandana on and there were
times when I was bald headed that I would go to the beach and take off my hat,"
said Hanson, who was a personal trainer and aerobics instructor for St. Simons
"It takes confidence and not feeling like you're weird. I have a Bible verse
taped to my mirror that says 'the king is enthralled with your beauty' and I
started thinking it's more important to be beautiful on the inside rather than
be upset with the beauty on the outside. You're just in this place in you're
life (right now), so find what makes you feel comfortable, accept it and make
And though a reaction to chemotherapy did little to destroy her happiness, hair
loss is something that both men and women often confront during cancer
Chemotherapy is a systemic therapy that in some cases is delivered by mouth but
usually is given intravenously and can be very effective against cancer, said
Dr. Bruce G. Tripp, a board-certified radiation oncologist at Southeast Georgia
Physician Associates-Radiation Oncology.
"(It) targets rapidly growing cancer cells, resulting in damage or death to the
cells. While there can be some damage to the slow growing normal tissues exposed
to cancer treatments, the damage is quickly repaired by the body and usually
goes unnoticed," Tripp said. "Hair loss occurs because hair follicles are some
of the fastest growing cells in the body, and as the cancer treatment does its
work against cancer cells, it also destroys hair cells."
But why hair loss occurs has something to do with how the drug was designed,
said Shannon Caauwe, an oncology nurse and nurse manager for Southeast Georgia
Health System Cancer Care Centers.
"Since chemotherapy cannot tell the difference between rapidly growing healthy
cells and rapidly growing cancer cells, it destroys both, especially the rapidly
growing cells of hair follicles," Caauwe said. "Not all chemotherapy drugs cause
hair loss, but can cause noticeable hair thinning."
Tripp says hair loss, which can be gradual or dramatic, is generally temporary
and starts within a few weeks of starting chemotherapy or radiation treatments
to the scalp. However, it depends on the type of chemotherapy and the dose being
administered, Caauwe added.
"Hair loss can be seen anywhere between one and three weeks after the start of
treatment. Hair may come out quickly in handfuls or gradually. Eyelashes,
eyebrows, and other body hair is affected by chemotherapy, as well," Caauwe
For most people like Hanson, shaving your head or cutting your hair very short
can minimize the trauma of losing hair during treatment. But Caauwe says it's
important for cancer patients to be in control and make decisions based on
"A cancer diagnosis itself is devastating, but the hair loss resulting from
treatment can be seen by some patients as an announcement to the world that they
have cancer. Some patients just are not ready for questions their appearance may
elicit, and some do not want others feeling sorry for them," Caauwe said. "Many
times it is not as much about losing the hair as it is about the disease
Head coverings such as turbans, wigs, scarves and hats are among ways to cope,
"Keeping the skin of the scalp clean and dry during treatment is essential. The
skin of the scalp is sensitive and needs extra protection, (especially) from the
sun (and) ... in the colder months," Caauwe said.
Caauwe says patients should not use permanents, hair dyes, blow dryers or hot
irons as they prepare and enter treatment. This can damage the hair follicles
before they have a chance to regrow.
After treatment concludes, hair growth will be gradual and may be a different
color and/or texture when it grows back, as Hanson has experienced. And it's
important for patients to be prepared for this change, too, Caauwe added.
For family members and friends of those affected by cancer, Caauwe says
providing support, an ear to listen, and sometimes, a shoulder to cry on are
some of the best ways to help patients cope.
Kelley Spaeder, community manager for the American Cancer Society, agrees.
"Hundreds of women in our area will be diagnosed with cancer this year, many of
whom will not only face the physical effects of the disease itself, but also the
psychological toll of treatment and recovery. Changes in appearance, from
complexion and skin sensitivity to hair loss or mastectomy, can be devastating
to a woman with cancer," Spaeder said.
"(Support) helps improve morale and gives women with all forms of cancer back
some control, confidence and hope during a very difficult time."
Adds Caauwe: "Letting them know they are supported and loved, hair or no hair,
makes a difference," said.
-- Reporter Brittany Tate writes about lifestyle topics. Contact her at
firstname.lastname@example.org, on Facebook or at 265-8320, ext. 317.
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