Cancer patients in UAE struggle for solutions to hair loss

For women cancer patients facing hair loss, locating quality wigs in the UAE can be a frustrating experience.

Katherine Brownlie, who counts herself lucky to have found three wigs, says "there isn't the information out there". Jaime Puebla / The National
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"Wigs and headscarves are not about vanity. They're about trying to get some sense of normality in your life when everything around you is falling apart," says Lisa Gwilliam, 40, who is undergoing radiotherapy to treat breast cancer. "Every woman is different, but it's not an easy thing to go through for anyone."

Gwilliam, who is originally from the UK, discovered she had stage-three breast cancer in September last year after finding a lump in her breast.

She began a gruelling course of chemotherapy at the Gulf International Cancer Center in Abu Dhabi, which, over the next month, caused her hair to fall out.

As a teacher at Jumeirah Primary School, Gwilliam says she didn't feel comfortable leaving her head uncovered because her sons, Jack, 7, and Daniel, 11, are pupils at the school.

"I didn't want to walk around with nothing on my head. You look so dreadful when you are going through chemotherapy anyway that you don't want people looking and laughing. If it wasn't for my sons at the school, I wouldn't have minded so much, but I didn't want anyone saying anything to them."

She was recommended a shop in Dubai but says its offerings resembled "something out of a circus" and left her very disheartened. "The whole experience was awful. It was just after I got my hair cut off and I thought 'I'll have a nice wig', and I had put some money aside. But it was horrible.

"I was getting terrible wigs shoved at me. I thought: 'I can't wear one of these; it's ridiculous.' They also did specially made headscarves, but they cost Dh800."

Instead, Gwilliam, who has lived in the Middle East on and off for almost 20 years, opted to enlist her friends to collect headscarves in a myriad of colours and designs for a fraction of the cost.

"I got people to collect headscarves for me until I had about 50 or 60. Now I can match something with anything and I still feel nice about myself.

"But there is a massive gap in this sort of information. And hair is so important for some people. So much changes in such a short time, and the second you come to terms with something that's changed, something else changes. It's important to feel like you are in control of some aspects of it."

The UK's largest cancer support charity, Macmillan, has a plethora of information on its website about hair loss, with topics ranging from preparing for hair loss (cutting your hair short in advance so the difference isn't so dramatic) to recommendations on gentle hair products and information on sourcing beauty therapists trained to work with people with cancer.

It also includes information on wigs and hairpieces and a list of recommended hairdressers to help cut and style them. But a quick online search reveals a very different situation here in the UAE.

At present, there are very few places for women to find support and information on some of the issues that are not directly related to the medical treatment of cancer - such as hair loss, wigs and specialist beauty therapists. There is no government-funded, countrywide body collating and disseminating the information.

Breast Cancer Arabia, an internet-based organisation and charitable foundation, was set up in January 2011 to provide women with reliable information about breast cancer and the ways to treat it, without bombarding readers with science. It is presented in Arabic and English and offers videos on everything from explanations of medical terminology to how to find an appropriate hospital or doctor. It also raises money to pay for treatment for women who can't otherwise afford it.

This year, it plans to fill some of the gaps in care, to help women undergoing treatment and also those in recovery.

Its president, Elizabeth Reyes, who is based in Dubai, has big ideas on how to help the thousands of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UAE every year.

"Hopefully, by the end of this year, we will have wigs," she says. "We want people to get back to normal as quickly as possible because that aids recovery. If we can help guide women, that's another worry taken care of. We want women to be able to find everything in one place.

"But we also need to be very careful. If we are recommending a hairdresser, for example, we would need to see all their certification to check we are giving the right advice."

The group is also working on importing mastectomy wear, which is also very difficult to source here, says Reyes.

As well as a lack of information, there is also the cost associated with a lot of the non-medical products. Many of the higher-end wigs, for example, are expensive and rarely, if ever, covered by insurance.

Daman, UAE's national insurance company, which has than 2.1 million policies, states on its website that it does not cover "any health services and associated expenses for alopecia, baldness, hair falling, dandruff, wigs or toupees."

Dr Houriya Kazim, a breast surgeon in Dubai and the founder of the Brest Friends organisation, says losing one's hair can be the worst part of all the treatments.

"It's part of our femininity, and the most obvious part of it," she says. "It's what people see when they look at someone. If you have a mastectomy, you can cover it up or hide it, but when you lose your hair, and sometimes your eyelashes and brows, it's almost like a beacon saying 'I'm unwell'."

Dr Kazim, an Emirati, says even women who where veils struggle when their hair falls out, despite it not being obvious to anyone else.

"You can cover it up, but at the end of the day they see it when they look in the mirror. It's not normal. Most people have hair on their head."

But even when one has the resources, finding a suitable - and affordable - wig is not easy, as Katherine Brownlie found out after she was told she had stage-two breast cancer.

The 35-year-old found a lump in her breast last June and was given her diagnosis shortly after. She also discovered it had spread to her lymph nodes, so she required two surgeries and six intensive chemotherapy sessions.

The Australian, who worked in accounting in Dubai, said she initially didn't care about losing her long, brown locks and didn't consider herself particularly vain.

"When they told me I was going to lose my hair, I just thought 'whatever'. And when it first started falling out, I thought 'this isn't too bad', because you're just losing a little bit at a time," she recalls. "My doctors kept telling me to cut my hair short. They said I'd deal with it better.

"But because I'd always had long hair, it didn't really cross my mind to cut it short until I was brushing it and it was coming out in handfuls."

She eventually conceded and visited a hairdresser to get a short bob. The cut only lasted two days before she opted to shave it all off with the help of her husband Matthew.

"My scalp ached. It felt like I had had my hair tied back tightly for three days. It was too sore. Matthew gave me a buzz cut and we left a little bit long along the middle, so I had a mohawk for a day. I still have the photos. It was a little bit of fun.

"You have to have fun with these things and try to smile about something, because there are so many things that keep knocking you down."

After her initial diagnosis, Brownlie was able to take advantage of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which falls in October every year, when the whole country turns pink to mark the occasion.

Practically every mall has at least one stall set up to "spread awareness" of the cancer and various health authorities embark on ambitious campaigns to get women to self-examine or have a mammogram.

But once the month is up, a lot of the information disappears, says Brownlie, who had her last chemotherapy session on Christmas Eve and is now undergoing a course of radiotherapy.

"It was Breast Cancer Awareness month and that meant there was so much going on. Now there's no information out there at all. It's all in one month and no one seems to follow through the rest of the year.

"I was getting bits and pieces from different people, but it's such a personal thing."

After shaving her hair, Brownlie embarked on her next challenge of finding a suitable wig. Based on a few tip-offs from friends she had met at the hospital where she was receiving treatment, she found a couple of wig shops in Dubai.

The selection, she says, was somewhat limited, but fulfilled her need to find a simple, straight dark-brown cut.

"Until your hair falls out you really don't have a concept of how you would feel. We are in the perfect country for getting away with wearing scarves without people even blinking. When I had a scarf on I felt I looked wrong. I would look in the mirror and think 'this is not how I look'. So I went for wigs instead."

The best human-hair wigs are much more expensive than synthetic ones, but can last years longer. A custom-made one can cost more than Dh10,000.

Synthetic wigs, which usually last up to nine months if they are well looked after, cost upwards of about Dh1,000 and can be cut and styled by a hairdresser.

"For me, I was quite looking forward to getting my wig, so I was happy to search for one," Brownlie says. "I ended up finding a wig in Dragon Mart by luck. If you don't have the resources to travel, it's impossible to find these things. There isn't the information out there.

"I now have three wigs that I wear all the time. I consider myself lucky, but I'd love to see more advice and practical help out there for other women."

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