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I felt my identity was being stripped away: Northern Ireland women on the shock of losing hair

Bold look: Eileen McKay
Bold look: Eileen McKay
Eileen wearing a headscarf during cancer treatment
Dramatic case: Linsey Farrell lost all her hair due to alopecia universalis.
Progressive problem: Ellie-Rose McKee’s hair is thinning because of a hormone imbalance
Tough time: Nichola Linagh lost her hair while going through chemotherapy

By Leona O’Neill

TV star Ricki Lake revealed a new buzz cut last week after years of hair loss. Here, four NI women who lost their locks for health reasons talk to Leona O’Neill about the trauma and how they managed it.

'I would wear different headscarves, the madder the better'

Londonderry woman Eileen McCay (49) lost her hair as she underwent breast cancer treatment. However, the Altnagelvin Hospital clinic co-ordinator says she decided to 'rock her new look' with different styles of head scarves.

"I was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago," she explains. "I had six rounds of chemotherapy and had complete hair loss with that."

Eileen recalls how she first discovered unusual symptoms: "I discovered a rash on my nipple that my doctor initially thought was eczema. I was referred to the breast clinic and a mammogram revealed two tumours. I had to have a mastectomy and chemo and a year of hormone treatment.

"Chemo was really tough. The last three rounds were rotten. They did explain to me about the hair loss and sickness and everything. After I got my second round of chemo I went to the Macmillan Cancer Centre and I got my hair shaved, because I didn't want to deal with it falling out.

"I was one of these girls who loved her hair and had it every colour and every shape and style. My hair was my thing and I thought it was going to be the hardest part of me.

"Shaving my head was a really emotional moment for me."

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Eileen wearing a headscarf during cancer treatment

Eileen says that she didn't wear a wig, instead choosing to put her own vibrant sense of style into bright headscarves and hats.

"I wrapped my head in these beautiful scarves," she says. "I bought different scarves to suit all my outfits. And then when my hair started to grow back I wore bandanas for a while.

"Seeing people's reaction to the hair loss was the worst thing. People would have avoided you if they saw you with the headscarf. People just automatically think 'cancer'.

"The hair loss was bad, but once my eyebrows and eye lashes fell out, that is when it really hit me. Because to me that is when I looked sick. It was like losing your identity. You were losing everything.

"So I just wore different headscarves, the madder the better. My friend was getting married and I had hoped my hair would grow, but it didn't so I wore a beautiful headscarf with beads to her wedding and a big headdress and I just improvised.

"Two years after diagnosis, I am in remission. My hair is starting to grow back now. It's in far better condition. It's getting there. I keep it short, I am so used to it now."

Eileen has this advice for women navigating the same journey.

"Make it your own style," she says. "I saw a quote once 'I may have lost my hair, but not my sense of style' and I love that. That is the mantra I would have lived by. I would have just dressed it all up. And it's hard for you, and for your family, but you learn to rock it yourself. It's just part and parcel of the journey."

'Part of my identity was stripped away... there was a feeling of panic'

Dramatic case: Linsey Farrell lost all her hair due to alopecia universalis.

Mother-of-three Linsey Farrell (39), from Banbridge, lost all the hair on her body due to the autoimmune disease alopecia.

"My alopecia started in 2008," she explains. "I was sitting in the office one day in August scratching the back of my neck and I felt a bald patch. Three weeks later I didn't have a hair on my head. It all went in that time. By Christmas, my eyebrows and eyelashes and everything had gone, hairs on my legs, everything was gone. Within a four-month period I lost every single hair on my body. It's called alopecia universalis.

"It was gone for almost four years. I was told that it would never come back. I went to see a dermatology consultant and he told me he'd never seen anything as dramatic as my case. He said that the more drastically you lose it, the less chance you have of it coming back.

"But then, miraculously, it started growing back almost as quickly as it went. Within a few months I had regained all my hair on my head. I have never fully regained all my eyelashes or eyebrows and I would still have patches of alopecia. But I have what looks like a full head of hair."

Linsey says that it was after a period of stress that her hair fell out. She says it impacted greatly on her confidence.

"It was horrific, to say the least," she says. "I felt that a whole part of my identity was stripped away. I lost a piece of myself and I was almost grieving for that part of myself. At the start I was shocked to find the bald patch. Then I was waking up in the morning and it was all over my pillow, it was coming out in my hands. It was just a feeling of panic. But I think autopilot set in and I just needed to deal with it. But I really was just covering it up.

"I went and got sorted out with hair pieces and wigs and I didn't take one day off work. I kept covering it up in work until I had to get my head shaved, because there was just no hair there. For a year or so I was on autopilot dealing with it.

"And even now, when I have my hair back, I still feel very self-conscious about my eyebrows and eyelashes and if it's a windy day I feel that maybe people can see any patches. And I feel changed by the whole experience.

"But I want people to know that there is hope. I was told that my hair would never come back and it did."

'I have been in tears, it really does get to you'

Progressive problem: Ellie-Rose McKee’s hair is thinning because of a hormone imbalance

East Belfast woman Ellie-Rose McKee's hair has got gradually thinner over the years due to a condition called polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a hormone imbalance in the body. The 30-year-old writer, who is married to Steve, says she has been left in tears over her hair loss.

"There is a lot of hormone imbalance with PCOS, there is increased testosterone. Alongside a lot of other symptoms, you can get male pattern baldness and a thinning of the hair. You can't tell by looking at me that my hair is falling out, but quite frequently I would get big clumps of it just coming away. And once that thins, it doesn't grow back.

"It impacts my confidence. It doesn't make me feel very good. It's awful. With all the beauty standards in society, people expect you to be gorgeous 24/7. I don't even use a hairdryer on my hair or straighten it, because if I did I know it would be ruined. That is my coping mechanism, that is how I control it. I try to do as little damage to it as possible.

"I haven't found myself wearing a wig. It's not that severe yet. It may well get to that point - I have been told it's progressive."

Ellie says that societal ideas over how a woman should look put even more pressure on women like her.

"I have been in tears over it," she says. "Some of the other symptoms of PCOS are acne and you get body hair in other places, so it really affects your appearance. And for me the hair thinning is tied into those other things. And with society's beauty standards being that a woman must look a certain way, and you don't match up to that, it does get to you."

‘Having no hair singled me out as a person who was ill’

Tough time: Nichola Linagh lost her hair while going through chemotherapy

East Belfast woman Nichola Linagh (51), who runs Linagh Consulting in Belfast, lost her hair while going through chemotherapy.

"I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma at 32 years old," she says. "I had a chemotherapy regime and there was hair loss with that. It started falling out after two cycles.

"I was very young to be diagnosed with cancer - it tends to affect older people. I had developed a lump in my stomach and I went to the doctor about it. The lump, which was the size of a football, put pressure on my organs. I had surgery and had it removed but because the disease was in my lymphatic system they had to do chemotherapy to make sure it hadn't spread.

"The chemo was very tough going. The third, fourth and fifth rounds were really hard with all the complications that go along with it. But I just tried to keep myself really positive.

"After the second cycle, my hair fell out. It was quite horrifying when you see it coming out in clumps in the shower. Your hair stops growing - your eyebrows, the hairs on your legs.

"Because the hair of my head was just coming out in clumps, I decided to shave it. My brother took his razor and shaved it all off for me at my mother's house. I remember it vividly, even though it was 18 years ago now, and it was the best thing to do.

"I got fitted with a wig. It wasn't the most comfortable. And I wore hats and headscarves and things. I think I just tried to keep it in perspective - it was only hair, but it singles you out as a person who is ill. For me it identified me as someone who had cancer, and I was trying to fight having it.

"I did have some mischief with it. When I was out and someone said something cheeky, I would lift the wig off and that taught them."

Nichola says her hair grew back in a completely different colour and texture to what she had lived with for three decades.

"My hair had been down to my shoulders and was light brown," she says. "I think I took it for granted. It framed my face and my eyebrows framed my eyes. I missed my hair, but I didn't let it bother me too much. When it grew back it grew very fuzzy, wiry and curly - and pure white. And I have never changed colour since, I just let it be.

"It's fashionable now, girls are going to the hairdressers and having their hair dyed white and grey. People come up to me and say that they love my hair, and I think... if only you knew the story behind this, I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy."

Celebrities who have suffered hair loss

Ricki Lake

The US talk show host and actress (51) showed off her buzz cut last week after revealing she'd been struggling with hair loss for 30 years. "Almost no one in my life knew the level of deep pain and trauma I was experiencing," she said. Lake put her hair loss down to a number of factors including "yo-yo dieting, hormonal birth control, radical weight fluctuations over the years, my pregnancies, genetics, stress, and hair dyes and extensions". But she said that revealing her struggles had made her feel "liberated and free".

Nadia Sawalha

In 2017 actress Sawalha revealed that she had lost a third of her hair and that her trademark curls were false. The 55-year-old added: "My hair really started to change after I had my children."

Jesy Nelson

The Little Mix star (28) put her teenage hair loss down to stress. She said in 2012 that she'd been bullied and that her hair "just started coming out... stress can cause alopecia and it wasn't nice".

Viola Davis

The actress (55) blamed stress for losing half of her hair at the age of just 28. She wore wigs but appeared at the 2012 Oscars ceremony in her "natural" style.

Jada Pinkett Smith

Pinkett Smith (48) began wearing scarves after losing her hair, which she spoke about in 2018. "It was terrifying when it first started," she said. "I was in the shower one day and then just handfuls of hair, just in my hands, and I was like 'am I going bald?'. It was one of those times in my life when I was literally shaking with fear."

Gail Porter

The 47-year-old star was diagnosed with alopecia totalis in 2005 and blamed her hair loss on her lack of work in recent years. She decided not to wear a hat or wig in order to raise awareness of the condition. In 2018 she cried with joy on Loose Women when she was fitted with a new wig of long blonde hair.

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