'Alopecia wasn't going to stop me getting a degree'

Gemma was 22 when her hair started falling out, but she wasn't going to let it get in the way of her big plans

Here Gemma Chandler talks about her experience of alopecia...

Heading out to a birthday party with some friends, suddenly one of them stopped me and started inspecting the back of my head.

I had no idea what she was looking at and assumed I had something in my hair. I couldn't believe my ears when she said, 'You've got a bit of a bald patch.'

Horrified, I felt around to the back of my head and my friend guided my hand to the smooth bald spot near my crown. I couldn't believe it. My friend took a photo on her phone to show me as she could see I was panicking. 'It's not that bad' she said as she showed me the photo.

It was bad enough. The patch was probably about the size of a £2 coin and was completely bald. I was completely confused and started to panic. Why had my hair fallen out? Ridiculous thoughts were running through my mind about whether I could have done it with the hair straighteners, whether there could have been some way it could have been cut off accidentally... alopecia was not something I even considered.

When I got home and was able to check through my hair properly, I found that I had another bald patch behind my left ear. I got on the phone to my GP and booked an appointment to see him straight away. He confirmed my worst fears, that it was alopecia areata, and was probably related to stress.

I'd just turned 22, how could my hair be falling out? I tried to think about what could have stressed me out. I'd been busy, yes, I was at university, exams were a few weeks away, my dissertation hand-in was looming, all while trying to find the time to see my boyfriend who lived over 100 miles away. But I hadn't felt stressed out. I realise now that bottling up that stress had resulted in it showing in other ways, through my hair falling out.

My doctor reassured me that I wasn't going to lose all my hair, but he said it was likely to get worse before getting better. I found ways to cover the patch on the top of my head, and the one behind my ear was only noticeable when my hair was tied up. But I started to get more and more patches and I was panicking that it would never end. Everytime I brushed or washed my hair I saw more and more hair falling out.

All this happened about 3 weeks before my 9,000 word dissertation and a lot of other coursework was due to be handed in - plus my final exams were only 2 months away. I was determined to carry on as normal and make my graduation day, but the added worry of my hair falling out was making me more stressed than ever - not what I needed when stress was causing my alopecia in the first place!

My mum was an amazing help and found me a specialist clinic in London where I've started a treatment called Minoxidil. It's a cream which you apply to the patches, and it encourages blood flow and regrowth to those areas. It is working, but slowly. There was a point last year where all the hair I'd lost was growing back and things were really looking up, but unfortunately all the short hairs I'd been so proud of fell out again! If I'm honest, I've been really lucky with where the bald patches are, most have been around the back of my neck and behind my ears, easy to conceal if you have long hair and can wear it down a lot, but are known as being the most difficult areas to grow back.

In September 2012 I graduated with a 2:1 in English and Journalism, I'd got a 2:1 in my dissertation and had even managed a first in one of my exams. It made the day just that little bit more special knowing that I'd had an extra load of stress on my shoulders but had come through it. And even better within a few weeks I got my first job as a journalist!

I'm feeling positive that I won't have alopecia forever. Some of the hair that's grown back is now half the length of the rest of my hair, and I've just started to notice some tiny fine hairs appearing at the top of my neck, so fingers crossed it won't be around forever. But even if it is, I feel confident that it won't stop me from achieving.

Lifestyle Writer

Gemma Chandler is a lifestyle writer specialising in kids' educational media across a range of topics including nature, history, science and geography across digital, print, social media and video channels. She joined Creature & Co. at 2015, shortly becoming Digital Editor of National Geographic Kids magazine.