Hair loss, also known as alopecia, is a transient consequence of cancer chemotherapy that can be psychologically devastating. While most cases of hair loss associated with chemotherapy are reversible, docetaxel (brand name Taxotere) is a chemotherapy drug that has been associated with an increased risk of permanent hair loss, particularly in women undergoing breast cancer treatment.
A study by the Rocky Mountain Cancer Research Center found that when Taxotere is used as part of the breast cancer treatment regimen, as many as 6.3% of women could suffer permanent hair loss. In a 2013 questionnaire by the Clatterbridge Cancer Centre, nearly 16% of patients who received chemotherapy with Taxotere reported significant, persistent scalp hair loss.
According to the researchers, the emotional effects of permanent hair loss for women can be traumatic. In some instances it can lead women to make crucial decisions about their willingness to continue treatment.
Researchers for the Rocky Mountain Cancer Research Center concluded, “Such an emotionally devastating long-term toxicity from this combination must be taken into account when deciding on adjuvant chemotherapy programs in women who likely will be cured of their breast cancer.” The Clatterbridge Cancer Centre declared, “Long term hair loss has a significant impact on quality of survival. This risk should be discussed routinely (as part of the process of informed consent) with all patients embarking upon Taxotere as a component of management of early breast cancer.”
Taxotere was manufactured by French company Sanofi-Aventis and approved for chemotherapy treatments by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1996. However, Bristol-Myers Squibb’s chemotherapy drug Taxol (generic name paclitaxel) had already been an effective alternative on the market since 1994.
Unlike Taxotere, Taxol has a negligible percentage of patients who suffer permanent alopecia or hair loss, according to doctors. Taxotere uses a synthetic version of the active ingredient of Taxol, but at twice the amount. It is given every three weeks, compared to Taxol’s weekly dosage.
Legal professionals have alleged that Sanofi-Aventis knew about the risks of alopecia associated with Taxotere but did not inform U.S. patients. Sanofi-Aventis did not issue a permanent hair loss warning to Taxotere until January 2016, after being prompted to do so by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration a month earlier.