McKenna Reitz, teacher and mother, on her battle with alopecia.
McKenna Reitz, who has completely lost her hair, says that she is frequently stopped by strangers who ask her if she has cancer. Reitz explains that, thankfully, she does not have cancer; she has alopecia universalis, an autoimmune disease which leaves sufferers utterly hairless from head to toe.
Reitz discloses, “People always think I have cancer and ask if I’m going through treatment. ‘Can I pray for you? Can I give you a hug?’ I’m appreciative, but I’d rather those prayers go to someone with cancer.”
“I want to spread awareness about alopecia. I want people to become educated and not to immediately think, ‘Oh, they have cancer.’”
Reitz describes one way to tell the difference between individuals undergoing cancer treatment and those with alopecia: eyebrows and eyelashes. “People going through treatment take a very long time to lose brows and lashes...if they ever do,” Reitz explains.
Alopecia is an autoimmune disease that attacks hair follicles, Reitz details, and there are three different types. Alopecia areata induces patches of hair to fall out, alopecia totalis produces the loss of all hair on the head, and alopecia universalis causes the loss of all hair on the entire body.
Reitz has the most extreme and most rare type: alopecia universalis. “They don’t know why it happens,” Reitz shrugs, “but there is a correlation between stress and genetics.”
Alopecia Progression and Treatment
“After I had [my first daughter], each August, which is my ‘stress time,’ I would get a bald spot--a quarter size spot--and they would inject it with steroids and [the hair] would grow back.”
“After I had [my second daughter].” Reitz continues, “I will never forget that we were leaving for volleyball team camp, and I felt a spot on my hairline that was itchy and red. After that my hair started to shed. At first I just assumed it was normal postpartum shedding, but...by the end of volleyball season, it was coming out in clumps. Within 3 weeks, my hair was gone.”
“The first 6 months, I hit rock bottom. For women, hair is your identity...and I felt like I lost me. I couldn’t even look at myself in the mirror. It was really hard to move forward, but I had no other choice--I have two little girls. You quit or you keep going.”
“[Alopecia may] not be life-threatening, but it’s mentally and emotionally threatening. I had a lot of bad days,” confesses Reitz.
Reitz went to a dermatologist at University of Michigan, and they tried topical creams, steroids, and injections (straight into her scalp!), but nothing worked. Eventually the doctor said there was nothing more to do.
Reitz was beginning to lose hope, but Dr. Sarah Stierman at Dermatology Associates in Perrysburg assured her that “they would always continue to try.” Together they have tried cutting-edge medicine, including Xeljanz, which has produced positive results in clinical trials but was unsuccessful for McKenna.
Acceptance and Advice
After two years of attempting every treatment possible, Reitz finally decided to take a break in order to “cleanse the body.”
Reitz reveals that she has come to terms with her disease. “I’m not on such an emotional roller coaster. I’ve accepted that I have it...and it has totally changed my outlook on life. It has allowed me to see the inner beauty more than just the outer beauty, to focus on the positive instead of always the negative.”
Reitz wants others alopecia sufferers to know that they’re not alone; 6.8 million Americans have this autoimmune disease.
Reitz encourages, “Don’t allow it to define and change who you are. Hair doesn’t define you. If I could do anything to get my hair back, I would. I would take it back in a second. But I’ve grown and become a better person because of this.”
If you would like to make a donation to fund research, visit the National Alopecia Areata Foundation site.
Reitz Quick Bio:
What's your favorite activity to do with your family?
Go on a bike ride.
Best holiday memory from when you were a kid?
Christmas with all of my grandparents.
What's your go-to activity when you have a few minutes to yourself?
Read. I like motivational books and love stories...Nicholas Sparks crap books!
Describe your life in five words or less.
Inspired by many.
Favorite place to buy wigs?
Charming Wigs on Manhattan in downtown Toledo. Wigs.com is my other go-to!
*All photos of McKenna Reitz and her family were taken by JP Photography.*