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NONHAIR DAYS GET BETTER FOR WOMEN BALD: NEW LUNCH GROUP HELPS MEMBERS FACE CONDITION THAT CAN BE TRAUMATIZING.

Byline: Sue Doyle

Staff Writer

Her brunette hair suddenly began coming out in handfuls. Three weeks later, Trish Trifunovich's white scalp began peeking through the thinning strands.

The 48-year-old Los Angeles woman, who saves her shed locks in a quart-size baggie, says her patchy head of hair now looks like a side effect of chemotherapy treatments.

But her hair loss is the result of alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease, which affects at least 4 million Americans -- men, women and children -- whose immune systems attack hair follicles, mistaking them for foreign invaders, according to the National Institutes of Health.

And Trifunovich now wears hats when venturing outside.

"Thankfully, I've loved hats since I was a little girl, and people are used to seeing me in them," said Trifunovich. "But I'm probably a month away from a wig."

Although hair loss can be psychologically devastating, it traditionally is seen in men living with the inherited condition alopecia androgenetica, often called male-pattern baldness.

To help others learn about female hair loss, women with alopecia areata are boldly gathering in popular restaurants across the country through Bald Girls Do Lunch Inc., a New York-based nonprofit organization.

Some come in hats. Some wear wigs. Others arrive bald.

Some have eyebrows and eyelashes. Others have none.

Some have seen their hair fall out, grow back in and then fall out again.

The condition has no single course and no cure.

"We always meet in a restaurant so we can mainstream the public's awareness, so that when you see a bald woman, it doesn't mean she has cancer," said Thea Chassin, who launched the nonprofit last year.

"Hopefully, over time, we are helping the public understand that this is another way of looking."

Trifunovich joined the group for the first time Tuesday for a three-hour lunch at Maggiano's at The Grove, where the women swapped stories over salad, pasta and chicken.

"Sometimes I make my wig look a little messy, the way natural hair can get. Do you do this?" asked one woman.

"Do people stop to tell you about their chemotherapy treatments?" asked another. "What do you say to them?"

"What about those people who give you an extra scoop of ice cream? Does this happen to you?" asked a third.

The next lunchtime get-together will be Sunday in Woodland Hills, and then it's off to San Diego on Wednesday.

While some lose all their hair, others see hair fall out in small patches, said Joyce Fox, a dermatologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Group.

"Hair loss doesn't have to be on the head," said Fox. "It can be on the legs. It can be on eyebrows and eyelashes only. Or it can be everything."

Although the condition is not life-threatening, it can be traumatizing and feel isolating, especially in a society that places significant value on youth. Hair is often one of the first things people notice.

"Women have a lot of image issues. We have hair issues -- and our femininity," said Chassin. "When you lose your hair, it's an opportunity to approach your femininity in new ways. It's not the end."

A typical person without alopecia naturally loses about 50 to 150 hairs every day. Once a hair is shed, a new one begins to grow from the same follicle.

Chassin, whose blue eyes beam when she talks to the women, first lost the hair on her scalp 10 years ago. Then her eyebrows went.

After her diagnosis, the New York woman felt completely alone -- not knowing any other women without hair. She long kept the condition hidden.

But one day, while in Los Angeles to visit friends, she wondered how she herself would react if one of them came out and said she is bald.

Immediately knowing the answer, Chassin felt it was time to start sharing her secret.

"That was my turning point," said Chassin. "You learn very clearly that people like you for who you are. It's not about your hair."

Today the energetic Chassin crisscrosses the country hosting lunches and spreading the word about the autoimmune condition.

It's a large job for the small operation run by the New York woman, who searches for corporate sponsors and finds most are busy donating to causes such as fighting breast cancer.

While the cause of alopecia areata is unknown, some doctors believe people are genetically predisposed to it and that a trigger -- such as a virus, stress or something in the environment -- sets off the condition, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Christie Costello firmly believes stress prompted her hair loss, starting at age 3 when her parents got divorced.

By 21, every one of her long, dark-brown strands had vanished from her scalp.

At 32, she has hardly any hair left on her body, and she cast aside her wig in April when an oncologist believed she had lymphoma.

Figuring the cancer would make anyone bald, the Rancho Cucamonga woman decided it was time to go public with her hair loss. And she was tired of her wig.

And so she began facing the world as a bald woman.

It was intimidating at first for the spunky brown-eyed woman to meet the eyes of children and other adults staring at her when she entered a room, but she forged ahead.

Then the oncologist called back. Good news. Her biopsy did not show lymphoma after all.

Costello said the misdiagnosis had pushed her into a newfound freedom of living bald. She had crossed an invisible line in her life, and there was no going back.

"As a child, I was always hiding. I was always terrified. If the wind blew, my bald spots would show," said Costello. "It's freeing to no longer have that barrier. Now I'm just out there."

While there are treatments for alopecia areata that seem to work for some people, such as cortisone injections or use of ultraviolet light, there is no single cure.

Although hair transplants seem logical, they don't work with alopecia areata because the immune system would attack them in the same way it previously went after hair follicles, said Fox.

Trifunovich had several shots of cortisone in her head last month at her dermatologist's office and might go for another round in January.

She reminds herself that the condition is life-changing, not life-threatening, and approaches it with a sense of humor and laughter.

"I'm going to get a blond, a red and a brunette wig. And either my neighbors will think someone's stealing my car or that my husband is having a lot of affairs," said Trifunovich. "Because they will see a whole lot of different heads coming out of this house."

sue.doyle(at)dailynews.com

818-713-3746

WANT TO GO?

If you are a woman 18 or older with alopecia areata, you are welcome to attend Bald Girls Do Lunch from noon to 3 p.m. Sunday at Maggiano's, 6100 N. Topanga Canyon Road, Woodland Hills.

Cost is $38 per person, which includes a $20 tax-deductible contribution. Payments in cash or check. Reservations required.

Call 914-584-7662 or e-mail info@baldgirlsdolunch.org.

To learn more about the group,

go to www.baldgirlsdolunch.org.

CAPTION(S):

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Photo:

(color) Some women -- including, from left, Christie Costello, Thea Chassin and Trish Trifunovich -- are learning to accept hair loss.

Tina Burch/Staff Photographer

Box:

WANT TO GO? (see text)
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 12, 2008
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