Research into young people's experiences of hair loss during cancer treatment has found it is a mistake to assume women will be more affected than men. Scientists analysing interviews with recovered young adult cancer patients enrolled in the DIPEx project found that young men were just as affected by chemotherapy-induced hair loss as young women.
However until now, men's experiences of hair loss have been largely ignored.
Hair loss can be a distressing side-effect of chemotherapy affecting patients' body-image, self-esteem, confidence and social interaction. It is often feared by patients, yet little is done to talk young men through what to expect. Scientists at the MRC's Social and Public Health Sciences Unit in Glasgow carefully analysed interviews from young cancer patients from all over Britain to find out what impact this aspect of the illness had had on them. Of the 37 people aged between 18 and 38 that took part in the study, only three (one woman and two men) said their experience of hair loss had been unproblematic.“It became clear that though these young people had been told to expect hair loss, few had any idea of what to expect, both in terms of the manner in which this would occur, and the likely emotional impact this would have on them,” said Professor Kate Hunt, who led the study.
The researchers found young men in particular had not been prepared for the impact of hair loss. One of the most distressing aspects described was the loss of privacy and control over who knew about their diagnosis. Many people also described how, in addition to the difficulties they faced after being diagnosed with cancer at a relatively young age, they also had to cope with some very negative and upsetting reactions to their hair loss from other people.
One big difference between the way that the young men and women talked about their hair loss was that it was only the men who talked about losing hair from other parts of their body as well as their scalp. Some men found this more disturbing than losing the hair on their head:
“You lose all your arm hair, you lose your pubic hair and then your body hair and your leg hair and your toe hair, everything is completely gone,” said one respondent. Another likened himself to a “plucked chicken” .
These differences are particularly interesting because in most societies hair length and style are taken for granted as a way in which people express their identity, but also as an important way in which distinctions between men and women can be emphasised.
Summing up the implications of their findings, Professor Hunt concluded:
“What we found is that young men appear to have as much difficulty adjusting to hair loss as young women and it's important that health professionals are aware of how distressing this can be for men as well as women. The loss of their body hair in particular makes them feel even more vulnerable at a time when they are suffering from losing control over their lives. It's also really important for all of us in society to try and be more sensitive about not adding to people's problems when they are coming to terms with a cancer diagnosis and treatment by being insensitive to changes in people's physical appearance at this time”.