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Although it is becoming less common, the trademark of a cancer patient is a bald head or a bandana covering it. So why exactly do cancer patients lose their hair?
Some of the most effective anti-cancer drugs of the 20th century were developed to do one thing: stop cell growth. Examples include Paclitaxel and Cisplatin These therapies work by stopping cells from dividing: the intracellular ropes (microtubules) that physically pull two daughter cells apart during cell division are disrupted, cells that actually do divide are damaged and less able to divide again, and the cells simply die from the accumulated damage.
If this process sounds similar to poisoning, it’s because it is. These therapies literally poison the entire body of a cancer patient. However, cells that divide more quickly are affected more adversely by this method of treatment than the cells that make up most other tissues, and cancer cells often divide very quickly.
The quicker the cancer growth, the better the effect of this type of therapy. Leukaemias can populate the blood with malignant white blood cells so quickly that within days a patient can go from a fairly normal constituency of blood to one that appears white – not red – to the eye because of the massive proliferation of white blood cells. For some leukemia patients, the reduction of the malignant fast-growing white blood cells can be almost as dramatic as the onset of their disease.
As a result, other cell types in the body that divide quickly are adversely affected as well, such as fingernails, blood, and yes, hair. In addition to hair falling out, cancer patients on these classes of drugs will have their fingernails stop growing, and often become anemic from their severely hindered blood production.
From a molecular standpoint, it’s like trying to use a mallet to put out a lightbulb.
It has only been recently that more specific cancer drugs have been created that do not have such adverse side effects. (a future article will discuss how to design a cancer drug)