Saturday 21 September 2019

Real Life: The naked truth

The general public doesn't view hair loss as a particularly serious condition -- as it's not life-threatening -- but sufferers say that it's as debilitating as any other disability

Sounding board: Therese Hughes in her Belfast shop. 'We wanted to provide more than a wig-fitting service. We wanted to provide advice and support and someone to talk about hair loss.' PHOTO: CHARLES MCQUILLAN
Sounding board: Therese Hughes in her Belfast shop. 'We wanted to provide more than a wig-fitting service. We wanted to provide advice and support and someone to talk about hair loss.' PHOTO: CHARLES MCQUILLAN

Sudden hair loss, either from alopecia or cancer treatment, is shocking, and often celebrity role models or TV shows provide the only frame of reference. The recent TV dramatisation of Mo Mowlam's life dealt sympathetically with her struggles with hair loss following chemotherapy, while TV presenter Gail Porter is a positive role model for anyone with alopecia.

Irish people with alopecia have more concrete support at hand thanks to the Alopecia Support Group, set up by Liz Shiel in 2006. She was looking for help for her own condition and realised that the only people she knew who suffered from alopecia were famous.

"I was out there looking for support once again and realised that the only other people I was aware of with the condition were celebrities like Gail Porter and Matt Lucas. I decided to set up the Alopecia Support Group myself and haven't looked back since," Liz says.

She has struggled to come to terms with the condition which began over 13 years ago.

"I found a patch in early 1997 but ignored it. I mentioned it to my mum who is a nurse and she reminded me I had a patch of hair loss when I was 12."


Her hair grew back when Liz was 12 but it was a different story when it began to fall out when she was 35.

"I was a working lone parent with two young children. I had no more than the normal stresses of day-to-day life."

Liz's hair began to fall out in clumps, causing her much distress.

With little information available and after several rounds of painful treatment involving injecting steroids into her scalp, Liz realised her hair wasn't going to grow back.

"I have alopecia universalis which means I have lost all the hair on my body too. It's really only in the last two to three years that I have gotten used to it," Liz explains.

"It's as debilitating as any other disability. I've spent years wearing hats and hiding away from the world."

She finds that as it is not life-threatening, sometimes alopecia is not treated seriously.

"There are people who say 'look, you're not going to die' or isn't it great I don't have to shave, but what I would give to buy a packet of razors.

"I wear a wig mostly and try to stay positive."

This attitude has led her to playing a part in the upcoming series of The Tudors.

"I applied as an extra and mentioned the fact I was bald so I got the part of a sick person looking for alms. It was the most fantastic experience," Liz says.

Medical experts have noticed that some alopecia conditions have become more prevalent during the recession. Trichologist Deborah Whelan runs the Galway Trichology Clinic and she has seen an increase in stress-related hair loss over the past number of years.

"There has been a big increase in hair loss due to stress, with people losing their jobs or lying awake at night worrying about the future. Stress-related hair loss is where the hair suddenly goes into a resting state. With proper diagnosis and treatment, the hair will grow back within a few months," she explains.

Deborah outlines other types of hair loss.

"Postpartum alopecia is another type of hair loss that I see quite a bit of. Up to 40pc of women will experience it after having a baby.

"The hair growth is interrupted and the diminishing or thinning of hair is due to hormonal changes."


The most common types of hair loss that Deborah sees are androgenetic alopecia, or pattern hair loss, and alopecia areata.

It is very distressing when it happens and often Deborah sees clients coming in with clumps of hair in a bag.

"It can be useful for me to look at the hair and see if it is just breakage due to products and hair treatments or if the hair is actually coming out at the root.

"The thing to remember is that for most people it is treatable," she says.

"It will usually only need three to six months' treatment. We try to take a holistic approach and address lifestyle and nutritional issues. I can use light therapy, electric treatments and some anti-androgent topical products -- it all depends on the type of hair loss involved," explains Deborah.

"If you are suffering from hair loss I would recommend getting a diagnosis."

Lack of sleep is a big factor. "People are only sleeping three to four hours a night with stress and worry. I would recommend Valerian and Flax to help here.

"Nutrition is also so important for boosting the immune system. Iron is great for hair and meat is a good source of iron. I would recommend eating liver once a week as it is high in vitamins A and B."

Cancer sufferers often find hair loss during treatment very difficult to cope with. Therese Hughes, owner of Tresses Hairpiece Boutiques in Newry and Belfast, understands the distress experienced by those who suffer hair loss.

Therese received an MBE in 2008 for her services in providing wigs to people undergoing chemo and recently supplied wigs for the Channel 4 Mo Mowlam documentary.

"I had a hairdressing salon for 17 years. My very first client was going through chemo and she had an NHS wig which was just awful. It was too thick and the wrong colour. I was going to London and said I would look out to see if I could get anything better for her there," she explains.

Therese ended up talking to a man who sold wigs to Orthodox Jews and managed to source a wig for her friend.

"Everyone was asking her in the hospital where she got it. I just love doing it so I sold my hairdressing salon and started the business full time."

Eventually Therese won the contract with the NHS to provide wigs for people undergoing chemo.

"We wanted to provide more than a wig-fitting service. We wanted to provide support and advice and someone to talk to about hair loss," she said.


"I advertised for people in the hospital and now we have a great group of people to offer support and advice.

"We will shave the hair if needed and have the wig ready to put on straight away. There is now a dedicated room in Northern Ireland in every hospital for hair loss.

"Don't leave it too late as it only takes around 19 days for the hair to fall out after starting chemo. Try on a few things.

"Real hair wigs are more difficult to manage. Synthetic hair can be easier to manage especially when you have a woman who has breast cancer and mobility is a problem."

Pauline Forrester, a cancer information nurse with the Irish Cancer Society, says there is plenty of support out there.

"We have two information leaflets on hair loss and we also have a list of wig suppliers. There are some wonderful wig providers around the country and most of them have a private consultation room."

The Cancer Society also has a helpline. "We can put people in touch with others who have gone through it," Pauline says.

"It is a very emotional and distressing time. I would advise people to bring a friend or relative and to try to go before treatment."

Irish Independent

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