The pro who helped me clear the first hurdle on the road to recovery wasn’t a doctor or nurse.
Far too many women experience hair loss while undergoing chemo and or radiation therapy as a result of breast cancer. At Transitions Hair Solutions, we wanted to share this incredible story of one of those amazing women, as well as a wig specialist who understand the myriad of emotions one will go through during this time and who she helped her client take the first step into restoring her confidence so that she may concentrate on getting better for herself and her family and friends.
Let us now praise the unsung heroine of the breast cancer world: the wig specialist. No, strike that. “Heroine” isn’t quite the right word. My wig specialist was more of a one-person support group, combining her styling skills with the background of a therapist, the intimacy of a close friend, and the understanding of a sister.
Hand-cut paper letters on her wide mirror spelled out her name: “Princess Rae,” a.k.a. Rachel. She had graduated from Somerville High School, where she studied cosmetology. Unlike her friends, Rachel had no interest in a marquee salon on Newbury Street. The idea of this oh-so-different type of work appealed to her because she saw cancer’s punishments firsthand when her Aunt Franny was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. She started this job right out of high school. Twenty-four years later, she is a seasoned hairstylist and the guru of hair loss. Though wigs are her specialty, she tells me that she also styles clients whose hair is slowly returning (they are too embarrassed to be seen in a regular salon).
For my first appointment with Rachel, I brought a very, very close friend. I’ve known Ellen all my life; our parents were best friends. Yet within minutes, Rachel had superseded more than 50 years of friendship. It was clear that she was the lifesaver I’d cling to during this ordeal, because she knew exactly what to say and when to hug — and because she was deft with a box of tissues, which appeared as if by magic when the first tears fell.
The three of us discussed what I wanted in a wig. Long? Short? Brunette? Or did I want to go blond for the first time in my life? No, I decided. Cancer had thrown me off balance. I’d have no hope of regaining my footing as a past-her-prime parody of Marilyn Monroe.
Rachel left for the stockroom and returned with three sample wigs. She was pleased with the third: a chin-length number with bronze highlights. Ellen nodded her approval. This was the wig Rachel would order for me.
Now it was time to talk about my baldness-to-come. The main question: Shave it off or watch it go gradually? “Some women make a party out of it: wine, girlfriends, and a razor,” Rachel explained. “Some moms let their kids paint their hair in crazy colors before shaving it off.” She got to the point. “So much of your experience with cancer is out of your control. A lot of women like to take control where they can. You can decide when you’ll lose your hair, instead of letting the cancer treatment decide for you.” Makes sense, I thought.
Round two came a few weeks later. This time, I would have only Rae in my corner. I knew she was all I needed. The intimacy we’d developed on the first visit — in less than 30 minutes — was of an intensity I’d experienced only once before . . . with the nurse who’d been by my side as I labored to deliver my son. There, too, the nurse superseded all others. I actually dismissed my husband from my side so she could be the one to hold my hand.
The day arrived: Saturday, 2:30 p.m. While the world spun on its axis as if all was normal, I was about to lose my hair. My crowning glory. Even strangers have complimented it. It is — or was — dark and thick, with tons of body, the legacy of my dad. And it was about to disappear — in an instant. There was no preparing for this. I sat myself down in Rae’s chair. She twirled me around, to face away from the mirror. Thought left me. The sound of the razor had no meaning. When it stopped, in as gentle a way as possible, Rachel prepared me with a question. “Who do you look like? Your mom or your dad?”
Then, as in the HGTV remodeling shows, “the big reveal.” Rae twirled me around to face the mirror and somehow, in the same motion, she wrapped her arms around me from behind and placed her chin on the back of my chair. We were practically cheek to cheek. I stared. The tissues again appeared. Rae was silent for as long as I needed.
It was over. Rae had virtually lifted and carried me up the first gruesome step of my climb toward recovery.
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