She baldly goes public with disease

One woman's brave decision to go public about her struggle with a disease that left her bald has led to what might be the first support group for the condition in Singapore.

Ms Chan See Ting, 23, took to Facebook on Tuesday night to share her experience with alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease that attacks the body's hair follicles, resulting in hair loss.

In the post, which had nearly 600 likes and 8,000 shares as of last night, Ms Chan asked fellow sufferers of the disease to reach out to her. Nine have responded, and they plan to meet up and start a support group when more do so.

More than 100 strangers have also sent their get-well wishes.

Ms Chan, who works as an industrial relations officer with NTUC, said she initially had reservations about crowdsourcing.

"I didn't want people to judge me," she told The Straits Times. But one simple reason changed her mind. "I don't want people to feel as alone as I did," said the only child, who wears a wig when she goes out.

Ms Chan's ordeal started in July 2013, when she was at a salon getting ready for a friend's wedding dinner. "My hair stylist discovered a bald spot the size of a 50-cent coin on my head," she recalled.

More bald patches appeared in the following weeks, and she approached the National University Hospital's dermatology clinic.

After rounds of steroid injections and oral steroids, the hair loss stopped. But her hair started falling out again in June last year, so she began a topical chemical treatment.

It seemed to work, and she had a "full head of hair" by April this year.

Then came another relapse - the worst yet. "Within three weeks, all my hair was gone. It's horrible. Every time I think I'm done with it, it happens again."

While the disease is painless and has no other serious ill-effects, dealing with it is emotionally draining. "You can just be sitting there talking to your friends, and a pool of hair just collects around you."

Ms Chan cried and threw tantrums. "I felt very inferior. I couldn't look at myself in the mirror. I wore T-shirts and shorts everywhere. I thought, if I don't look pretty, I don't need to dress pretty."

Psychologist Daniel Koh said hair is part of a person's identity, and gives women a "sense of sexuality". He said it affects self-esteem.

Insurance agent Kenneth Goh, 23, responded to Ms Chan's post. His hair began falling out three months ago, and he now has alopecia universalis - a complete loss of body hair. "I was depressed and could really relate to her. Hopefully the support group can provide encouragement in numbers."

Last week, Ms Chan's brows and body hair started to drop off too. She is trying out traditional Chinese medicine. Smiling, she said: "At least now I don't have to shave my legs."

About the condition

Q What is alopecia areata?

A It is a type of hair loss, occurring when one's immune system mistakenly attacks hair follicles, which contain hair roots.

It usually starts with one or more small, round smooth patches on the scalp and can progress to total scalp hair loss, or alopecia totalis.

When one has complete body hair loss, it is known as alopecia universalis.

The condition is highly unpredictable and cyclical in nature, but it is not contagious.

It occurs in males and females of all ages.

While there is no cure, treatment options include steroids to suppress the immune system and chemicals that alter the skin's immune function.

About 147 million people around the world will have alopecia areata at some point in their lives.

Sources: National Alopecia Areata Foundation, American Academy of Dermatology

This article was first published on Aug 27, 2015.
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