Alopecia Awareness Week: How wigs can help children with the condition feel more confident
STELLA Hammet was five years old when her hair started falling out.
The 12-year-old from Melbourne has alopecia, a rare auto-immune disease where the body’s immune system attacks the hair follicles. There is no cure and most sufferers are diagnosed before their 20th birthday.
“I remember my mum was brushing my hair one day and my hair sort of came out in clumps in the sink. I said ‘Oh no, what’s happening?’ because I didn’t know what it was,” Stella told news.com.au.
“It started coming off in patches around the back of my head, so I wore bandannas and scarves to try and cover them up. But then the patches got bigger and then it all fell off. It felt like one day I just woke up with no hair.”
By the time she was seven, Stella was completely bald.
During Alopecia Awareness Week, the charity organisation Variety is raising awareness about its Wigs for Kids program, which funds wigs for children who have lost their hair.
Wigs made from human hair can cost $4000-$6000 (it takes 10-15 ponytails to create a single wig) but after 18 months they start to lose their hair. These handmade, custom wigs come fitted with a silicon cap to prevent itching.
Stella, who is now onto her third wig, says being able to walk down the street without attracting stares is a welcome relief.
“I just get up, put my wig on and go to school. It’s just normal now and it’s actually quite easy to style,” she said.
“I just do it on the wig stand. If you do it up too high you can see the edges, so I mainly wear it in a low pony.”
Stella’s father Andrew Hammet also has alopecia and lost his hair at age 16.
“Because Dad was a kid when his hair started falling out, I’ve always known him with no hair,” Stella said. “I’ve seen photos of him at my grandparents’ house with hair and I just thought ‘Oh, that’s weird’.”
Mr Hammet said he never expected his condition would be passed onto his daughter.
“I just thought it was a one-off thing that would only affect me,” said Mr Hammet. “When her hair started falling out I thought ‘I know exactly what’s going to happen’, which is depressing because I knew the treatments are mostly ineffective.”
He says it was heartbreaking to see his daughter feel insecure and embarrassed about her appearance.
“Adults often think kids aren’t aware of how they look and see themselves, but we soon realised that Stella didn’t like looking at herself,” he said.
“One time my wife and I went into her bedroom and she had scrawled lipstick all over her mirror in her bedroom. We said ‘What did you do that for?’ and we realised it was because she didn’t want to look at herself.”
Before Stella got her first wig in Year 3, she felt awkward around her classmates.
“Everyone else was like ‘I’m going to get a fringe tomorrow’ and I couldn’t really do that,” she said. “When I was wearing my bandannas people called me a boy.”
Mr Hammet says there were rumours flying school around about why Stella’s hair had fallen out.
“Kids were saying things like ‘Oh my god, Stella’s got cancer!’ and we wanted to address that,” he said.
So when Stella arrived at high school, she went on the front foot and decided to be open about her condition.
“I told everyone in my class,” she said. “I made a powerpoint presentation with photos, explaining what alopecia is. Everyone was really accepting, asked lots of questions. and nobody thought of me any differently.
“I thought if I didn’t do that, it would be really hard with things like sleepovers, because everyone would look at me like ‘What’s wrong with her?’ Now they say to me ‘Hey Stella, how’s your hair going?’”
Dr Anne Halbert from the department of paediatric dermatology at Princess Margaret Hospital says hair loss can be especially distressing for children.
“Many children who are diagnosed with alopecia face a devastating reality. Hair loss can have aprofound negative psychological impact on them due to self-imposed isolation from normal day-to-day life,” said Dr Halbert.
“A specialised wig can allow kids with hair loss to live a normal life, relieving much of the exclusion they can feel.”
The Variety Wigs for Kids program provides specialised wigs to kids whose parents can’t afford to buy one.
“One specialised can wig cost up to $6000 and lasts two to three years so the cost is prohibitive for many families,” said Variety CEO Tam Johnston.
“The wigs are fitted to each child’s head, with customised colour, length and style. This program is just one of the many ways Variety helps kids who are sick, disadvantaged or have special needs.”
To donate your hair or to apply for wig funding visit variety.org.au