Worried about losing his hair, Ronnie Wood says 'no way' to chemo

Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood — here with his wife, Sally Humphreys — opted not to have chemo because of its side effect: hair loss. (Photo: Getty Images)

Ronnie Wood is known for his musical talent — and his shaggy hair. But despite facing a lung cancer scare earlier this year, the Rolling Stones guitarist says he wasn’t willing to put his hair in jeopardy for his health.

Wood, who smoked for 50 years, told the Mail on Sunday that his doctor just happened to find “a supernova burning away” in his left lung during a routine visit. “He asked me what I wanted to do and my answer was simple: ‘Just get it out of me,’” the 70-year-old says. Luckily, the cancer hadn’t spread to his lymph nodes, and after a five-hour operation, Wood says he’s now healthy.

But Wood says he didn’t consider chemo — and not because it wasn’t a treatment option. “It’s more I wasn’t going to lose my hair,” he said. “This hair wasn’t going anywhere. I said, ‘No way.’ And I just kept the faith it would be all right.”

Wood had to wait for a week before getting his test results and learning that his cancer was gone. “There was a week when everything hung in the balance and it could have been curtains, time to say goodbye,” he said.

It seems extreme that someone would base their cancer treatment on keeping their hair, but Jack Jacoub, MD, a medical oncologist and medical director of MemorialCare Cancer Institute at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, Calif., tells Yahoo Beauty that hair loss is a big concern for cancer patients. “It’s common to hear that expressed,” he says.

Martin Edelman, MD, chair of the Department of Hematology/Oncology at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, Pa., agrees, noting that men and women are often concerned about hair loss from chemotherapy. “It is a very visible sign that they have disease,” he tells Yahoo Beauty. “This can result in significant psychological distress.”

Hair loss can happen with chemo because the treatment interferes with the development of new hairs in the hair follicle. “These are rapidly dividing cells, and very susceptible to many but not all chemotherapy agents,” Edelman says. Hair loss is discussed with patients as a possible side effect when doctors discuss potential treatment options with them, Jacoub says, and it does factor into a person’s decision to have a particular treatment. “If there’s a different option without much hair loss, by all means, we’ll try to do that,” he says. However, Jacoub adds, it’s pretty uncommon for someone to flat-out refuse a treatment solely on the basis of potential hair loss.

There are some things patients can do to lower their risk of hair loss with chemo, including a good diet. However, Jacoub says, the impact of that can be “minimal.” What does seem to work, though, is an FDA-approved treatment known as scalp cooling, which involves patients wearing a tightly-fitted, helmet type of hat filled with gel that’s chilled to between -15 and -40 degrees, according to Breastcancer.org. These caps can reduce the amount of chemotherapy medicine that reaches the hair follicles, and and cut down on hair loss.

“The results are really impressive,” Jacoub says. “There are times when I see patients who have gone through all of their treatments and it looks like they haven’t had any treatment.” Cooling caps aren’t covered by health insurance, though, he says, and can be too expensive for some patients.

If you have cancer and are concerned about hair loss, it’s best to talk to your doctor about your options. But experts urge you to put your health first. “Most hair loss is temporary, and that hair will regrow after cessation of chemotherapy,” Edelman says. And, he points out, not all forms of chemo cause hair loss. “It would be wrong to base the decision for treatment on hair loss,” Jacoub says. “Base it on cancer therapy.”

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