I just had my annual work-sponsored free skin cancer screening. I made sure to have the dermatologist check my scalp, and not just because I’ve gotten some of my worst sunburns along my part. A little over a year ago, I discovered a couple bald spots on my head, and I wanted the dermatologist to reassure me that all my hair was still in its rightful place. (It is! Knock wood.)
Most of my closest friends already know about this saga, but now that the hair is on its way back, I feel like I should blog about it. There are a lot of terrifying stories about alopecia areata – the official name for this condition – on the internet. Since mine is (thus far) less terrifying, I hope it shows up in the Google results for someone who is panicking the way I was when I first searched for it.
Some weekend last April, I was sitting on my couch watching an episode of Mad Men. I was idly playing with my hair, or scratching my head, or something, and I felt skin where there should not have been so much skin. I paused Don Draper and headed to my bathroom. This situation was on the back of my head, so I pulled out a pocket mirror and used it to view my larger mirror.
A CIRCLE OF PALE WHITE SKIN ON THE BACK OF MY HEAD. INSTANT PANIC. INSTANT BAWLING.
I immediately called my mom, who could barely understand what I was saying because I was so upset. She told me to calm down and to send her a picture and it probably wasn’t as noticeable or bad as I was making it out to be. This is the picture I emailed her:
She then realized that yes, it was as bad as I was making it out to be.
My roommate came home sometime during this mess, and I had her look at it. “This happened to my friend when she was younger,” she said. “It’s not really a big deal. She had a few bald spots, and they grew right back. It hasn’t happened to her since.”
Still, I made an appointment with my doctor (who kind of sucks – I need to find a new one). Instead of immediately referring me to a dermatologist like she should have, she prescribed me pills to treat a fungal infection (gross!). Despite the fact that I had no other symptoms of such an illness, head fungus can also cause bald spots. She told me to call back if I found more spots or if it got bigger.
The next day, I was feeling my scalp frantically in search of further developments, and I noticed the hairline behind my right ear felt a little strange. Sure enough – another spot, about the same size. MORE PANIC. MORE BAWLING. I called my doctor and demanded a referral. I got one, and because I was so panicked, I was able to get an appointment relatively quickly.
MORE PANIC. MORE BAWLING. So many pictures of completely bald people! The dermatologist I spoke with during my screening is not a fan of this website. He said something like, “I’m all for patient support groups, but only about two to five percent of people with alopecia areata go on to lose all their hair. You wouldn’t know that from their website.” The information on the website did not encourage me either. I didn’t find any statistics, just vague statements like, “Some people develop only a few bare patches that regrow hair within a year. In others, extensive patchy loss occurs, and in a few, all scalp hair is lost (referred to as alopecia totalis) or, hair is lost from the entire scalp and body (referred to as alopecia universalis).”
“Some people”? “Others”? I need numbers! I had visions of my hair falling out in clumps, chemo-style. I had visions of myself as a bald woman with no eyebrows or eyelashes. Every hairdresser I had ever seen in my life had complimented me on my lovely, thick head of hair. I cried over the irony.
By the time I finally saw the dermatologist, I was a wreck. She was completely pleasant and cheerful. “Looks like alopecia areata,” she said. “The good news is, you only have these two spots, and they’re both already growing back.” (I hadn’t been able to see that. Fun fact: When hair grows back after alopecia areata, it initally grows back completely white.)
It has come in another few inches since then, and I haven’t discovered any new patches. That’s not to say I never will. The unsettling thing about this condition is that it’s poorly understood and largely unpredictable. It’s hereditary, but doctors don’t really know what starts the process that causes hair loss. It might be physical or emotional stress, so last year I was quick to blame the marathon I had run a few months prior. I’ve run two more (faster!) since without any issues. Some people have one episode and that’s it, while some people struggle with it for life.
I know I’m lucky that this is just a cosmetic thing, that my health isn’t actually affected. It’s true! However, you don’t realize what a blessing a full head of hair is until some of it is missing, especially as a lady in today’s society.
I hope I haven’t jinxed myself by posting this, but I am just trying to help. And if you happen to be reading this because you’re a panicked new diagnosee, please leave a comment and let me know I reached someone in my intended audience.