• Question: Hi, In a group of five people how many are likely to get cancer. Also after chemotherapy why do peoples nails and hair fall off?

    Asked by sbrazlil1 to Gioia, Iain, Jo, Leo, Mariam on 21 Jun 2010 in Categories: . This question was also asked by blondes, mgrgrl, thekaties, abbynliz.
    • Photo: Joanna Watson

      Joanna Watson answered on 15 Jun 2010:

      1 in 3 people will develop cancer at some point in their life, so in a group of five people that would be 1.7 people (if you could have 0.7 of a person).

      Chemotherapy can make people’s hair fall out because it is designed to kill cells which are dividing quickly – because cancer cells divide quickly. Unfortunately, the chemotherapy drugs can’t tell the difference between cancer cells and hair follicle cells (or any other cells that are dividing quickly) so it kills the hair follicle cells to and then the hair falls out.

    • Photo: Gioia Cherubini

      Gioia Cherubini answered on 16 Jun 2010:

      On the Cancer Research UK website, you can find a lot of information about all facts about cancer. I found there that I found that
      – There are more than 200 types of cancer, each with different causes, symptoms and treatments.
      – There are around 298,000* new cases of cancer diagnosed each year in the UK.
      – More than 1 in 3 people will develop some form of cancer during their lifetime.
      As for the hair falling off with chemotherapy, the main difference between cancer and normal cells is that cancer cells divide quickly, so the easiest way that we have to target cancer is to kill the cells that divide quickly. While most of the cells in our body don’t divide anymore, there are some that keep dividing throughout all our life, like hair cell. That’s why chemotherapy kills also hair cells and the hair fall out

    • Photo: Leo Garcia

      Leo Garcia answered on 16 Jun 2010:

      The generally accepted statistic is that 1 in 3 people will be affected by cancer in their lifetime.

      In chemotherapy, the drugs that are given to the patient attack rapidly dividing cells – which, whilst including cancer cells, also includes hair follicles. This is why people who are receiving chemotherapy commonly lose their hair. I’m not sure that people’s fingernails “fall off”, but a less common side effect of chemotherapy is fingernail damage:


    • Photo: Mariam Orme

      Mariam Orme answered on 21 Jun 2010:

      For the first part of your question, it depends a lot on who the people are and what risk factors they are exposed to (that’s a bit of a cop-out answer, because I don’t know the statistics! I hope Jo or another of the scientists will be able to give you a better answer!).

      For the second part, the reason your hair falls out after chemotherapy is because it’s hard to find ways to kill cancer cells without killing normal cells. So most chemotherapeutic agents target cells that are growing and dividing fast: one of the characteristics of cancer cells is that they grow and divide fast, but so do some other cells in your body, like cells in your hair follicles and in your gut. So these normal cells die too, with the result that your hair falls out and you feel sick.