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Dr Melissa Pilkington – identifying the best ways to support patients with hair loss

In addition to finding new ways to prevent and treat breast cancer, it’s crucial that we can identify how best to support patients and help them deal with the impact of their diagnosis and the side effects of treatment.

Dr Melissa Pilkington recently completed her Breast Cancer Now-funded PhD at the Centre for Appearance Research (CAR), at the University of the West of England (UWE), Bristol, where she studied the different forms of support available to help breast cancer patients deal with chemotherapy-related hair loss.

Tell us about your research

The psychosocial impact of breast cancer treatment is wide-ranging, including changes to appearance. The aims of my PhD were to explore the different types of support available for women experiencing chemotherapy-related hair loss, whether these interventions had been evaluated and if they were meeting the needs of patients. Ultimately, this will help us provide the best possible care for women in the future.

The first stage of the research involved finding out what forms of support are available for people with hair loss – and how effective they are. Although there are only a small number of interventions currently available, features of the successful interventions included delivery soon after hair loss, information provision and an opportunity for individuals to express their concerns.

I also evaluated Breast Cancer Care’s HeadStrong service, a freely available, volunteer-led service for breast cancer patients offering information and support in the use of headscarves to camouflage hair loss. I interviewed women using the service to discuss their experiences of treatment-related hair loss and the impact of HeadStrong. My findings suggested that HeadStrong can be an important and helpful resource for many breast cancer patients affected by hair loss, but people vary considerably in the type, timing and amount of support they need so interventions should, ideally, be tailored to meet each individual’s particular needs.

How could your research help breast cancer patients?

Importantly, I found that the need for support for the emotional and practical aspects of hair loss varies between individuals. It is therefore crucial that patients are offered a range of strategies and that psychosocial interventions are accessible and tailored to individuals. It’s critical that current and future interventions are properly evaluated to make sure that they are meeting patients’ needs. These findings will also help to shape the provision of care for breast cancer patients and help to raise awareness amongst healthcare professionals of the effects of treatment-related hair loss for breast cancer patients.

Why did you choose to study for a PhD?

Having gained an MSc in Health Psychology, I wanted to explore psychosocial interventions to support breast cancer patients affected by treatment-related hair loss as I have a particular interest in psycho-oncology and appearance-related research. I hoped that the PhD would help me to grow and develop as a researcher, in a specific area of research for which I am passionate.

My experience of being a PhD student was incredibly rewarding and I was fortunate to have the opportunity to speak to breast cancer patients about their experiences. My PhD has enabled me to develop various research skills, attend national and international training events and conferences. Also, I have been able to meet with and discuss my research with fellow researchers, patients and experts in the field.

How important was Breast Cancer Now funding in allowing you to carry out your research?

I am very grateful to Breast Cancer Now for their funding as this research would not have been possible without it! As a result of this funding, my research will help to support breast cancer patients who are affected by treatment-related hair loss, which will hopefully lead to much-needed improvements in the provision of care for this patient group.

What are your next steps?

As a result of the skills and knowledge gained through my PhD, I have successfully secured a research post in the Evidence-based Practice Research Centre (EPRC), in the Faculty of Health and Social Care at Edge Hill University. My PhD research has also led to a number of new lines of enquiry I would like to pursue, including an evaluation into other forms of psychosocial support available for breast cancer patients.

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