Chemo Curls, Are They Real? How Chemotherapy Interacts With Hair

Tahira Kashyap, Sonali Bendre Talk Chemo Curls: What Happens to Hair After Cancer and Why

Updated
Her Health
5 min read
Tahira Kashyap (L), Sonali Bendre (M) and Lisa Ray (R) own their cancer curls
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Chemotherapy and hair are not exactly the best of friends, you probably knew that? Though chemo fights the bad guy, cancer, it also goes ballistic on the hair, causing a hairpocalypse.

Even afterwards, chemo's assault on the hair doesn't end.

Which is what Bollywood actor and sunshine unlimited, Sonali Bendre joked about, as she endearingly told the audience about "chemo curls" at a recent event called We The Women. Upon being prodded by journalist Barkha Dutt on what the term meant, here's what Tahira Kashyap, another badass woman and cancer survivor had to say.

The hair are curly when they come back. It's funny but I am liking it.
Tahira Kashyap, Breast cancer survivor

Watch from 15:48- 16:20

Meanwhile, the third cancer survivor, Lisa Ray is laughing along, as the three cancer warriors share a lovely moment about their hair. No wonder then that this is what the host of the session had to say.

It takes incredible humour and strength to come up with a phrase called the chemo curls!
Barkha Dutt

Tahira, Sonali and Lisa are not the only ones to be open about the chemo curls. The hashtag also has about 8000 posts on Instagram!

The Chemo Curl Queens of Instagram

From poker straight hair to curly heads, here's the chemo-fueled transformation of these women.

Damn, those bedhead curls!

Hey Pooja Bedi, found your doppleganger!

View this post on Instagram

1 year separates these photos. It’s my cancerversary. One year ago, I received my breast cancer diagnosis. I was hoping to eloquently describe this day, but in honesty, I don’t know how I feel about it. I didn’t know if I wanted to acknowledge it, celebrate it, ignore it, hate it, or anything else. I woke up feeling very anxious, and sought out distraction for most of the day. Funny enough, I ventured to the hospital, to the chemo ward, to congratulate a fellow warrior as she completed chemo and rang the bell. What a year it has been. It still feels surreal, I still have trouble believing all that I went through. I have trouble digesting all I went through, and how it will impact the rest of my life. Fittingly described like a tornado, a shit-storm ripped through my life, fast and furious, and I’m still cleaning up the debris. Physically, I continue to improve. Strength, energy, endurance, it’s all coming back to me. For that, I’m grateful. Mentally, it’s still exhausting. Not to mention chemo brain 🙄🤯 I was meant to discuss returning to work with my oncologist last week. Instead we talked about the lump I found. It sent me absolutely spinning. I’ve since had an ultrasound, suggesting scar tissue, but am awaiting an MRI. When does it end? The answer is never. While I’m confident it will improve, canceritis is in full force and I live in fear daily. We’ve decided I will start talking with social work/ and or a counsellor to navigate moving on. I should have done this long ago, but fierce independent Sarah thinks she can handle it all. But I was pushed to my limits, to climb a mountain I never thought I could. I had to find strength I didn’t know I had within me. Anyways, I’m excited for summer! I’m excited to feel good, have fun, and tend to my mental health. I look forward to transitioning to some routine and normalcy when I’m ready to return to work. Gosh, I miss my tiny patients! 👶🏼 *I may edit this later, but for now, these are how my thoughts collected on this #cancerversary of mine 🤘🏻 #brca #cancer #breastcancer #recovery #mentalhealth #chemo #chemocurls #brca1 #breasties @the_breasties #breastcancerawareness #breastcancersurvivor #warrior #fighter

A post shared by Sarah🇨🇦Kingston, ON (@journey2previve) on

What powerful stories curled up in these chemo curls.

What the Chemo Hair| Medical Reason Behind Chemo Hair Loss and Chemo Curls

To kill cancer, chemotherapy is used. Because chemo kills cancer cells, which are rapidly growing and wreaking havoc inside the body.

So far so good. But chemo has many side effects. Dr. Sameer Kaul, oncology surgeon explains how commonly used cancer medicines end up killing *all* the fast dividing cells in the body.

Why? Because they are non-specific in nature, which means that besides the cancer, they also go to most of the other organs which also have fast dividing cells in the body. Which organs get impacted? We'll come to that in a bit. But for now, let's stick to the 'root' of the problem.

Dr. Manoj Johar, a dermatologist, explains that the cells in the roots of the hair are also among the ones growing very rapidly in the body.

So, when chemo is administered to a patient, their hair also get affected.

Because most cancer medicines attack any rapidly growing and dividing cell in the body, the hair (whose cells also grow rapidly) too gets damaged, which is why hair loss is common during chemotherapy.
Dr. Manoj Johar, Director, Aesthetics and Reconstructive Surgery, Max Patparganj

Fair To Call it Curly Chemo Hair?

Yes, because cancer alters the structural DNA of the hair. Here's how science explains it.

Two types of regrowth happen - those hair that survive the effect of the cancer treatment and those which were partially affected. Now the ones which were partially affected will have some kind of a structural change. The medicines will lead to a definite change in the hair root itself. That would show up as changes in the hair when the hair comes back.
Dr. Manoj Johar, Director, Aesthetics and Reconstructive Surgery, Max Patparganj

In fact, ladies and gentlemen, chemo curls is not the only chemo-fueled hair transformation taking place.

A study shows that when scalp hair is checked 6 months after the beginning of regrowth post chemo, here's all the changes that are common.

  • The scalp hair is thinner than earlier. Seen in 58% of the patient respondents of the study.

  • Hair texture becomes wavy or wavier. Seen in 63% of the patient respondents.

  • The hair becomes grayer. Seen in 38% of the respondents.

Curly hair is not the only change. The texture might be different, the volume might be different, the hair colour might be different, and the length that they will grow to spontaneously might not be the same. In the case of colour changing, it's likely that the colour forming cell has got disturbed or the number of colour forming cells has become lesser than before. Let's say, if they performed at 100% efficiency once, they are now performing at 70% efficiency.
Dr. Manoj

Can We Stop Hairfall After Chemo?

Hair fall is a side effect of the non-specific drugs, which have been used for decades, to kill cancer.

These side effects also impact:

The inner linings of the gastrointenstinal tract - the top layer of which is lined by mucosa, cells that are being continously produced and shed everyday with our food. This ends up causing nausea and vomiting in patients.

Fertility. Because the sperm cells and ovum are also rapidly dying because of chemotherapy.

The cells of the bone marrow which divides and grows continously to produce more and more blood cells. That's why, chemo warriors can get anemia and lowering of blood count.

But Dr. Sameer Kaul says these side effects, along with the hairfall, might not be as much of a side effect with the newer drugs.

The newer drugs ( targeted drugs) don't cause hairfall. They target specific cancer cells and don't go to other body parts with rapidly dividing and growing cells. So, they don't have hairfall.
Dr Sameer Kaul, Oncologist

Meanwhile, Rajni Arora, a cancer survivor who empowers other survivors through the group, Can Support, says she loved how her new chemo hair came out. "It was very thick and curly when it started growing again!... It becomes baby hair"

This is a temporary side effect. There was a lady who started crying at the thought that she might have to lose all her hair, but now I tell the women to look at it as an act of self transformation.
Rajni Arora, Can Support Volunteer

With so many badass women flaunting their cancer curls, without feeling sorry for themselves, it's time we made them part of the fashion mainstream too!

So, all you wonderful ladies fighting cancer, here's what we want to say to you: we Goddamn love your cancer curls!

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