By Stacey M. Handel,
AHLC Certified Master,
Garde Bien Salon, Inc.
Knoxville, TN

Keepsakes are mementos from the heart and represent something deeply cared for. While many people save photos or clothing such as wedding gowns and team jerseys or baby teeth, more than 60% of parents save hair from their child. Parents make a big event of the first haircut by taking photos, videos and then save the hair in a frame or baby book. My mother saved a ponytail from my childhood, which is in safekeeping. 

Imagine sitting in a doctor’s office, waiting for test results, praying for good news and fearing a diagnosis that will create a disruption in your life. Being diagnosed with cancer is devastating. Being told chemotherapy is the recommended treatment plan, a woman can be flooded with emotions of fear, anger and depression. Surprisingly, only minutes after absorbing the news of having a deadly disease a woman will ask, “Will I lose my hair?”

“Losing your hair is an outwardly, obvious sign that you’re sick,” said one woman.  “In addition to the unwanted attention, the thought of losing my hair made me feel more sadness than the thought of losing my breasts. It may sound silly, but many women and men who have faced a cancer diagnosis will understand what I mean. It’s pretty devastating and usually one of the first things you as a patient, see cancer taking from you.”

Although a cancer patient copes with doctor appointments, infusions, sudden changes in their body, aches and pains, weight loss, weight gain, sensitivities, red skin redness, and puffiness, most people fear going bald. It is dramatically visible. Hair is her identity. Her fun. Her mood. Her girliness. Her normalcy.

Bald is Beautiful? It’s a Private Matter

A chemo patient should be thrilled that chemotherapy is victorious in killing cancer cells through her tingling scalp and hands-full of hair. This is evidence the chemotherapy drugs are killing cancer when hair cells are being killed. 

Losing hair is losing privacy.  “When you lose your hair (going bald or wearing a turban) everyone knows what you are going through. I got those looks of pity – no one knows how to speak to you,”  one patient said.

Chemo baldness isn’t a choice but preserving your hair is consoling. Human hair wigs are in actuality wearing someone else’s hair, a stranger’s hair. It is empowering to somewhat control the fallout and keep your own hair. One cancer patient wrote: “Wearing hair allowed me to maintain my self-image throughout my treatment and spared me the visual indignity of having a serious illness. It’s an attempt to keep quality of life during a tumultuous and frightening time, and that is something that cannot be underestimated”. 

A New Way to Make a Keepsake

During wig consults prior to starting treatments, clients ask us to cut their hair before it starts falling out. In addition to a wig, I am asked about attaching hair to a baseball cap, something we have done many times with wefts. A client, Debby, who had not yet started her chemo shed, asked if I could use her own hair to make the cap. We have also designed caps for clients with alopecia totalis and alopecia universalis using donor hair from a family member.

The Cutting Appointment 

Being thoroughly prepared for this appointment is the beginning of generosity. Start the appointment on time. The focus needs to be on her. Stay calm, resolute and confident because her world is cracking.  No rushing, no interruptions, and privacy is a must. I am armed with tissues and patience. I try to mimic her mood; be in the background.

I encourage clients to bring a support person when we cut their hair as this type of appointment can be difficult. Debby brought her sister.  The first snip is monumental and acceptance of the inevitable. 

To prepare each section of hair, I plan the length to leave her hair, where to band, and where to cut leaving as much hair to design her cut.

During construction of the cap, it is possible to lose an inch or more in the interior of the cap. Since Debby had not cut her hair for nearly eight months through the pandemic this gave us more than enough length to work with.

To salvage as much hair and length as we could, we decided on a short pixie cut until her shed. Banding dozens of sections will maintain consistent length in the collection. Each banded section is labeled.

 

The payoff was immediate after a client, Debbie, received her cap.

“It lifted my spirits after finishing chemo and realizing I still have a way to go before I will have enough hair to go without my wig or any covering,” she wrote in a letter. “ Being able to touch my own hair is therapeutic. It brings me joy! Plus, the hat looks amazing! I’ve received so many (compliments) and no one knows I’m bald underneath. Some ladies look at me when I’m wearing it and say, “Your hair looks great!  So, you didn’t (lose) your hair with chemo?”

For decades, I participated in many organizations, programs, and events to share my talents. I have a special connection with cancer patients. My family has struggled with cancer and I have lost many to this horrible disease and am honored to give back to cancer survivors.

For 10 years, I worked with an annual “Cancer Survivor Wellness Camp” for Thompson Cancer Center. The salon was a collaborative host of citywide “Cuts for the Cure,” and is an affiliate of “Wigs for Kids.”