Hair clinic helps female cancer patients with physical, emotional side effects of chemotherapy-induced alopecia
Most cancer patients facing chemotherapy treatment are aware that a challenging process lies ahead. But often they are not prepared for the emotions they will feel when they look into a mirror and see dramatic changes to their appearance.
UCLA Health’s Gynecologic Oncology survivorship program offers education and support for the often-neglected challenge of alopecia — hair loss that many cancer patients experience after undergoing chemotherapy.
The program recently hosted its first hair clinic for women, with Hollywood hair specialists sharing tips and techniques with cancer survivors on how to feel better about their appearance while undergoing treatment and afterward.
“We have management guidelines for most treatment-related side effects, but no guidelines exist for treatment-induced alopecia. It really is an area of oncology treatment that deserves more attention," said Rachel Frankenthal, a UCLA Health physician assistant who, along with Jessica Walchonski, also a physician assistant, helped design and implement UCLA’s Gynecologic Cancer Survivorship program.
“Hair loss can negatively impact body image, sexuality and self-esteem. We have patients who refuse certain treatments if they will lose their hair,” said Frankenthal, who works at UCLA Health’s Westwood and Santa Monica OBGYN Specialty Suite. "We know how much a person’s body and appearance can change with cancer treatment. We wanted to help patients feel and look like themselves.”
Frankenthal had always wanted to provide support for this very personal and emotional side effect but she wasn’t sure where to start. That all started to change when she helped treat Jerilynn Stephens, an Emmy Award-winning hairstylist, for ovarian cancer two years ago. During one of Stephens’ pretreatment visits, the two decided to work together to provide education, support and empowerment to women struggling with treatment-induced hair loss.
"It just fell together very naturally,” Stephens said. “I knew I was lucky with my stage 1 cancer and successful treatment, and I really felt the need to help others. This seemed like the perfect way to do that."
Helping women feel more secure
On March 25, more than 30 cancer patients attended a clinic put on by UCLA Health at the WeSPARK Cancer Support Center in Sherman Oaks, where they received tips on scalp care, hairstyling, makeup application and how to use wigs. Stephens brought along four other Hollywood hairstylists who were eager to volunteer for the event.
"It was time to address this issue for women going through cancer. I just don't want women to feel alone in this battle," Stephens said. "I have a deep passion for supporting other women, especially when they are going through gynecological cancer. I know that women feel very insecure about hair loss and being bald and, you know, I went through all of that too."
Stephens said one of the most emotional stages of her treatment was when her eyebrows and eyelashes fell out.
"I felt really insecure about that, and not at all pretty," she said. "But I am a makeup artist as well. So I was able to just paint eyebrows on and do some eyeliner and even lay a lash if I needed to. But that's my field. Not all women will know how to do that. So it was one of those things that I just want to educate other women about. It was with that kind of mindset, in working with Rachel and her ideas, that we decided we should do the hair clinic."
Carolyn Goh, MD, a UCLA Health dermatologist specializing in alopecia, kicked off the event by explaining some of the basic biology that goes into chemotherapy-induced hair loss. From there, Stephens and her stylist colleagues worked individually with patients on how to better manage their hair.
"For so many women, hair does not grow back the same as it was before treatment,” Frankenthal said. “It might be thinner, straighter or curlier. Patients may not know how to style their new hair, which may contribute to insecurity or low self-esteem.”
Special connection and support
This all hit home for Stacey Adler, who recently finished treatment at UCLA Health for breast cancer. She attended the hair clinic and was able to get styling tips from the professionals as her hair started to grow back.
“People will say, 'It's just your hair.' But it really does affect you at a vulnerable time, and it hits you emotionally much harder than you would think," Adler said. "You already know that you are sick. But when your hair is falling out, now you can see that on the outside, as a constant reminder of how sick you are. When you are happy with what you see in the mirror, it can actually help you to feel better."
Like many of the wellness programs UCLA has embraced for cancer treatment, Adler said the support of patients and survivors was invaluable.
"Just being around other women who have gone through the same experience is really inspiring. You can really feel the special connection and the support," said Adler, a nurse at Children's Hospial Los Angeles. "I was treated during COVID, so everything was phone calls or Zoom meetings. That's not the same. It's just great to be around others in person and share your mutual journeys and learn from each other."
Walchonski said the feedback from patients and survivors was so positive that UCLA Health is planning more hair clinics.
"When we talk to our patients, after treatment as they move forward into survivorship, we have always heard the same concerns that they don't think are being addressed, and the top two are hair loss and sexual health issues," Walchonski said.
She said it's a great leap of progress just to allow patients and survivors to talk about hair loss, with caregivers and with each other.
"A lot of them had felt really alone, like they were the only ones feeling these emotions about their hair and not knowing who to ask or where to go for help," Walchonski said. "So most of them were turning to Google, and sometimes Google is the absolute worst place to go for answers."
Stephens sees the hair clinic as just a start for her mission as a survivor and a stylist. She wants to take this cause nationwide.
"So, my mission right now is to make the biggest impact on this problem by educating hairstylists around the country on chemo, hair loss and regrowth and wigs," Stephens said. "That way, when they have a client who is going to go through cancer treatment and deal with this, the stylist will be able to have empathy and compassion and knowledge, to help that client get through this much better."