Hair is a touchy thing for anyone, but especially for cancer patients, who enter treatment knowing that once they start chemotherapy it's just a matter of time before they lose some, or all of it. Volunteer stylists at Shine, a store run by the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, are there to help.
Michal Bloom took a picture of the clump of hair in the shower. Just to mark the occasion. Just to tell herself, for sure, that it was time.
So she made an appointment at Shine, a store run by the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA) where, tucked in the back is a single chair and a volunteer hair stylist ready to help patients decide what is often the inevitable.
“Shave it off,” Bloom told stylist Shannon Mills, who did just that. Slowly, tenderly. Then Mills helped Bloom try on a few wigs before she finally decided that a hat (found inside the store) would not only keep her warm, but keep her identity.
Hair is a touchy thing for anyone, but especially for cancer patients, who enter treatment knowing that once they start chemotherapy it’s just a matter of time before they lose some, or all of it. With it goes a strong sense of self, and in its place, a level of vanity that surprises them.
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“It might be a Samson complex,” said Bloom, 62, a retired U.S. Department of Justice attorney who moved to Seattle from Las Vegas 18 months ago to undergo treatment for ovarian cancer at SCCA. “Women who feel that their hair is the essence of their femininity.
“It didn’t feel like it was a big thing until it was gone.”
The staff at Shine knows this, and is prepared to help patient/clients through it all, starting with the salon. Clients are not charged for hair services, but are welcome to make donations, which are then used to buy supplies.
Stylists volunteer their time, and it seems they get more out of it than they give.
Mills, 34, spends about four hours a week offering clients help, whether it’s shaving, cutting, trying on wigs. Sometimes, she just stands behind the chair, her hands on a client’s shoulders while they try to figure out what to do with what they see in the mirror.
“You can’t say the right thing,” Mills said. “Just a touch on the shoulder or being gentle. That’s the hardest part, seeing them upset and crying.”
And yet, those experiences have meaning, said volunteer stylist Yvey Valcin, who first heard about Shine through a friend and worked there for three years before he had a car accident and had to take a break. He’s now ready and eager to get back into the volunteer rotation.
“This feeds me in a way that money doesn’t,” said Valcin, 37. “Some people, you do their hair and they don’t remember who you are. Here, it’s more than hair. We go through something together.”
Valcin hasn’t met a woman who doesn’t have a “certain relationship” with her hair. It is a silent expression, he said, of something they want to convey.
To lose it, he said, “It’s like a woman giving away her crown.”
Valcin lost his mother to illness when he was young, so his work at Shine has helped his heart heal.
“This space is very dear to me,” he said. “I didn’t have a chance to do this with my mother, so when I stand behind a chair here, I feel that energy. If my mom were alive, I would dedicate this time to her.”
Working at Shine is nothing like working in a typical salon. Clients don’t peruse magazines to find a new style. And there’s no “cheap talk,” as Valcin put it.
Mills agreed: “You have to be careful about what you say because these people are going through something tragic. A lot of them want to vent, and get their minds off of it.”
She started volunteering at Shine after moving here from California a few years ago. She had been looking for a way to connect with the community when she learned that her best friend’s mother had been diagnosed with cancer. Helping patients like her gave Mills purpose.
“I wanted to do something, even though I couldn’t be there physically,” Mills said
She especially likes being a part of patients’ lives away from doctor’s appointments, treatments and managing their cancer.
“For a little bit of time, their minds are away from what’s going on,” Mills said.
To that end, stylists strive to make patients’ experiences at Shine as luxurious as at any other salon. They take their time, they indulge and they make suggestions, knowing that things will change as a patient’s treatment progresses.
If they are about to start chemotherapy, for example, Mills and Valcin may suggest that long hair be cut a little shorter — a pre-emptive measure so that when the patient starts losing her or his hair, it won’t be such a shock.
“We go shorter and shorter and shorter until it’s time to shave it all off,” Valcin said.
Bloom appreciated Mills’ insight. She, like most patients, wasn’t prepared for what happened after she started chemotherapy. She always thought she would wake up one morning and sit up, only to find her hair stayed on her pillow.
“That’s not how it works,” Bloom said. “It’s like a dog shedding.”
When her hair became so thin that she could see her scalp, Bloom knew it was time to shave her head — something she was ready for. But she wasn’t ready for what happened when she went outside.
“Some of these people, they rock their bald heads,” Bloom said. “But for me, it was too much white flesh. When I went out without a hat, I felt very self conscious.
“I don’t consider myself a vain person, and losing my hair itself was not traumatic,” she continued. “But walking around bald is a huge life change and announcing to the world, ‘I have cancer.’ As an older woman, it’s not a good feeling to be stared at because you know there’s something wrong.”
At Shine, Bloom noticed some wigs sitting on the counter, and asked Mills if she could try a few on.
“That clinched it,” Bloom said with a laugh. “The answer was no. It was comical.”
So, with Mills’ help — and that of the salespeople at Shine — Bloom found some comfortable hats she felt good about.
“It was a problem solved, and a lovely solution with comforting people to help you through it,” she said. “They made what could have been a crappy experience for me so fun. It was a discovery.”
Bloom’s cancer is now in remission, and her hair has grown back, as curly and impossible as it was before.
“I kind of miss the hats,” she said. “You don’t have to worry about a bad hair day.”
But then, every day is a good day, Bloom said.
“I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore.”