Caring for Chemo Curls

By Melissa Walker
Reviewed by Lillie Shockney, RN, BS, MAS

You know that people often lose their hair during chemotherapy. But do you know that toward the end of treatment, or soon after, when your hair starts to grow back, the texture and color may change? Many people—even those who previously had pin-straight hair—find themselves with what are known as chemo curls. Hair does return to its natural state about a year after regrowth, but in the meantime, you’ll have a new look to handle.

Sarah Thebarge, 33, of Portland, OR, underwent chemotherapy for invasive breast cancer in 2007. Her long blond hair fell out, which began what refers to as “the evolution process on my head.” Her hair went from peach fuzz to a crew cut and then to tight curls. “It was disconcerting,” she recalls. “I had this surgery on my body, and I had scars to deal with. And then my hair grows back brown and curly. It felt like a change of identity.”

Many people color their hair to match its usual shade or get it cut in their pretreatment style, but Sarah embraced her new look: “The hair was a symbol of recovery, and I wanted it to do its own thing.”

Caring for newly curly hair can be challenging, so here are some tips to help you with your new ’do:

  • Invest in shampoo, conditioner and styling products made specifically for curly hair. Yes, there’s a difference.
  • Because curly hair can be quite dry, shampoo only two or three times a week. Rinse with water and conditioner on the other days.
  • If your curls get frizzy when you blow-dry them, try finger-combing your hair while it’s still wet and then letting it air-dry. Another bonus? It’s less work!
  • Play with styling. Sarah says she used gel and bobby pins to create new looks and found some adorable ways to wear her pixie curls.
  • Find a hair stylist or salon that specializes in curly hair. It’s a whole different beauty process, so seeing an expert is worth it.

Sarah is now in remission, and her hair has grown longer and become straight again. Having been through the process, she offers words of wisdom for anyone facing an altered head of hair: “Everyone handles the change differently, and you don’t owe anyone an explanation for what you do with your hair—there’s no healthy or unhealthy way to deal with this. Do what makes you feel pretty.”

Published March 2014

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