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12-16-2007, 06:15 PM
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".

The DIPEx website (http://www.dipex.org (http://www.dipex.org/)), which records volunteers' accounts of their experiences of various aspects of health and illness, is a great source of help and advice, not just for cancer.

Notes:

1. Hilton, S et al (2007). Have men been overlooked? A comparison of young men and women's experiences of chemotherapy-induced alopecia. Psycho-Oncology, early view.

2. DIPEx shows you a wide variety of personal experiences of health and illness. You can watch, listen to or read extracts from their interviews, find reliable information on treatment choices and where to find support.

The site covers cancers, heart disease, mental health, neurological conditions, screening programmes, pregnancy, teenage health, chronic illnesses and many others.

3. The Medical Research Council is dedicated to improving human health through excellent science. It invests on behalf of the UK taxpayer. Its work ranges from molecular level science to public health research, carried out in universities, hospitals and a network of its own units and institutes. The MRC liaises with the Health Departments, the National Health Service and industry to take account of the public's needs. The results have led to some of the most significant discoveries in medical science and benefited the health and wealth of millions of people in the UK and around the world.

Medical Research Council (http://www.mrc.ac.uk/)