Losing Your Eyebrows to Chemotherapy

Coping with Eyebrow Loss During Chemotherapy

Aaron and Lisa Christy with their children, Joshua, 5, Ben, 3, and Ella, 15 months. Ben and Ella are undergoing cancer treatment at Westmead Children's Hospital, 6 September 2006.. Credit: Fairfax Media / Contributor / Getty Images

Were you surprised to learn that you might lose your eyebrows during chemotherapy?  In fact, eyebrow loss as well as loss of other body hair is common.  Let's talk about why this is important, and how to cope.

Will You Lose Your Eyebrows During Chemotherapy?

As if losing the hair on your head from chemotherapy wasn't the icing on the chemotherapy cake, how about losing your eyebrows?   Many men and women often find that they lose their eyebrows in addition to hair on the top of their heads, their eyelashes, their pubic hair, and hair everywhere else during chemotherapy.

The chance that you will lose your eyebrows (and head hair) will vary depending on the type of chemotherapy drugs you are taking and the dosage.  Thankfully, this annoying symptom is most often temporary, and your eyebrows will grow back along with your head hair.

Of course, there are some exceptions, and eyebrow and head hair loss due to radiation therapy to the head and neck is often permanent instead.

Why Am I Losing My Eyebrows?

Chemotherapy is considered to be systemic therapy, meaning it affects the whole body - not just where you have cancer. The cancer cells in your body have a very high mitotic rate - meaning they multiply and divide at a very fast pace.  Chemotherapy targets these fast growing cells, and destroys them or at least slows down their division.

The problem arises because you also have normal cells in your body that are fast multipliers, such as the lining of your stomach, your hair follicles, and the cells in your bone marrow.

  In other words, the side effects of chemotherapy are actually often the wanted effects of treatment - just not at the right location.

Coping Physically with Eyebrow Loss From Chemotherapy

Some people are bothered by eyebrow loss, while others find it less bothersome.  Some people barely notice, while others feel that eyebrow loss gives them "that look" - the look of being a cancer patient.

Just like with the hair on your head, eyebrow loss can begin gradually.  Some people may note that, while they lose all of the hair on their head, their eyebrows only thin out.  There are several ways to deal with thinning or absent eyebrows.

When you first begin losing your eyebrows, your may want to just pencil them in. Until you lose all of your eyebrows, this can sometimes perfectly disguise the loss. All you need is an eyebrow pencil or eyeshadow that matches your eyebrow color.  Here's how to fill in sparse eyebrows.

For those who have completely lost their eyebrows to chemotherapy, you can pencil them in or you have other options. Penciling in is going to be the most simple and economical. With patience and the right teaching, they can look very natural. Eyebrow stencils are available from brands like Bobbi Brown and can help you to draw the perfect brow.

You may want to consult a cosmetologist to help you get the hang of using an eyebrow stencil. It can be frustrating if you have no experience with drawing your eyebrows.

Plus, having the help of an expert beats standing in front of the mirror for hours trying to get it just right.

More Drastic Approaches

Some men and women choose a more permanent approach to losing their eyebrows to chemotherapy by having them cosmetically tattooed. It is important to note that eyebrow loss is not permanent in most cases. They will grow back after you finish chemotherapy. Some people don't want to deal with the chore of having to pencil in their eyebrows every day and choose this more drastic option. Before you head to a cosmetic tattoo artist, be sure to run it by your oncologist. There is a risk of infection with tattooing, and lowered white blood cell counts during chemotherapy put you at a higher risk.

Another more drastic option is eyebrow extension. This semi-permanent method is sometimes used for those who have sparse eyebrows and need to thicken them or add a little length. You can use your own hair for the extension or choose a color from sample swatches, which are glued, lasting about 14 days. Cost is about $185 for initial application and $45 every two weeks for touch-ups.

Free Help For Eyebrows and Make Up Help for Women With Cancer

For women, the non-profit Look Good Feel Better is a wonderful organization that can help women feel a little better - if only from an attractiveness point of view - during chemotherapy treatment.  They offer free group "makeovers" for women with cancer across the country (you can check by zip code to find one near you) in addition to providing great makeup tips for cancer survivors on their website.

Coping Emotionally with Eyebrow Loss from Chemotherapy

Everyone responds differently to eyebrow loss during chemotherapy.  Some people find it doesn't bother them at all, while others find it more distressing.  It's important that you honor yourself by coping with this side effect in the way that is best for you alone.  Don't feel pressured to paint on eyebrows if it doesn't bother you at all to go without, and don't let anyone discount the importance of your eyebrows if it is distressing to you.

It's common for people without cancer to offer opinions at this time.  What many of these people do not realize is that eyebrow loss can simply be "the straw the broke the camels back"  and in addition, is something you do have control of.  If it is important to you to do what you need to restore normal looking eyebrows, go ahead.

As far as coping with the emotions of hair loss, try your sense of humor.  There are some fun chemotherapy bald jokes out there that may help you laugh when you need.  For example, those about not having any bad hair days now.  Or try a technique psychologists call reframing. Instead of focusing on the bad aspects of hair loss, think of the good.  You won't have to shave your legs (for women) or face (for men) for months!

Perhaps one of the best ways to cope, however, is to view your eyebrow loss as a sign that your cancer treatment is working.  As you grieve the loss of your beautiful brows, picture the chemotherapy not only stopping the division of cells in your hair follicles but those of your cancer cells.  And speaking of silver linings, did you know that having cancer really does change people for the better?

Sources:

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Hair Loss and Your Cancer Treatment.https://www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/patient-education/hair-loss-during-your-treatment

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