SUMMERSIDE, P.E.I. – It started slowly. A couple stands of hair here, a few there. Until one day Laura Peters noticed small, balding circles forming on her scalp.
“I didn’t know what was going on. So, I went to my family doctor and they said it looked like alopecia.”
Alopecia is an auto-immune disease that causes hair loss on the body and scalp. There are a handful of variations of the disease including female pattern baldness (androgenetic alopecia) which involves thinning of hair on the top or “crown of the scalp. This affects about 40 per cent of women in Canada by the age of 50.
However, Peters was diagnosed with a rarer version of the disorder: alopecia totalis.
According to the Canadian Dermatology Association, alopecia totalis is the total hair loss on the scalp.
She was referred to a dermatologist and they confirmed the diagnosis.
“When they told me what it was, they said mine looked like the kind that kind of clears up and won’t be so noticeable. But now because I’m losing hair everywhere, my doctor believes it is alopecia totalis.”
Generally speaking, alopecia is the thinning or loss of hair. But in some cases, it can stem further that. On average a person loses about 50 to 200 hairs per day.
“The term alopecia generally actually means hair loss. But when referring to alopecia totalis, like in the case of the woman from Summerside, we refer to a type of the disorder known as alopecia areata,” said Dr. Kerri Purdy, a certified dermatologist.
Purdy practices predominantly community-based dermatology, but also has a part-time academic position as the program director for the dermatology residency at Dalhousie University, in Halifax.
“That is a type of alopecia related to a type of autoimmune disorders. When a kind of alopecia areata involved the loss of hair on all of the scalp that is called alopecia totalis and when it involves hair from all over the body, that is referred to as alopecia universalis.”
The disorder is not uncommon and can affect anyone, said Purdy.
In September, Peters decided to cut her hair into a short crop, hoping that would hide the patches easier.
Within two weeks, it was falling out in huge clumps, said.
“That’s when I had an ‘I need to do this’ kind of moment and decided to shave my head. I told my family and my sister came over and shaved it for me.”
Next Peters inquired with a company in Charlottetown about purchasing a wig.
“I went down to Charlottetown with my niece, Paige, and got a wig. It cost $3,500. It’s made of real hair and is hand tied together.”
She says she expected the experience to be different than it was.
“I didn’t expect it to be emotional or sad, because I’m not sick. I thought it would be like you see on reality TV when the Kardashians throw on their wig, zhuzh it up and everything is great.”
Paige Rankin, Laura’s niece agreed that the experience wasn’t as expected.
“I was getting nervous that we weren’t going to find one that suited her or one that she loved.
“It’s been heart-wrenching for my family to see her go through this. Laura always tried to brush it off and say ‘it’s just hair…’ I’ve always wanted to be like my aunt Laura, and now that I’m older and know more, I really want to be like her because she’s a strong, beautiful and caring woman. This experience only solidifies that.”
Peters tends to wear the wig only when she is out in public and sometimes while working on clients of her aesthetics business.
“I feel I need to wear it for everyone else. I recently put up a post on Facebook explaining what was going on. The main reason was to let people know that I’m not sick, I have alopecia. People would see me and immediately ask if I was feeling ok or though I was battling cancer. But I’m not.”
When you think about it, she said, a person’s hair can play a big role in one’s identity.
“I remember when I was talking to my doctor about it, he said he’s had women who he’s told have cancer and the first thing they ask isn’t ‘Am I going to die,’ but rather, ‘Am I going to lose my hair.’ I think social media and the idea people have about themselves plays a big role in that. And before I lost my hair, I was probably like that. But now, as I come to terms with it, I realize that it could be so much worse.”
Peters said moving forward she would like to have genetic tests conducted to find out if she is a carrier of autoimmune disorders.
“I’ve concluded that I am. My son has been living diabetes since Grade 8 and my daughter has had psoriasis since she was about eight. Both of which are caused by compromised autoimmune systems. So now I want to know more and if I am a carrier of more than this.”
Peters also has a younger son she is concerned about.
“I want to know as much as I can in case something was to happen with George.”
After purchasing the wig, she posted on Facebook to let her friends and family, publicly, know what was going on.
“The main reason I made the post was to let people know that I’m not sick. People would see me and automatically think, cancer,” she said.
“But I’m not sick,” she stressed, “It’s just a look. I’m not going to not live.”