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Coping With Chemo: Helping A Client Through Hair Loss

Geneva Cowen

Author Geneva Cowen | Artistic Director for Sam Villa


I have been a stylist for 22 years in Anchorage. I always joke that most of my guests have been with me since before I even knew how to do hair. We laugh about the times I said, "I'm sorry! It will grow"!

Since I've gotten older my guests have aged as well. Unfortunately with age, cancer has come into our lives.

My longtime client Marianne has always been what I call a “corporate mom.” She is the CEO of her family. All of her four children are very accomplished in many different areas and I've always looked up to her, and her ability to do what she does selflessly for the betterment of her family.

When she was diagnosed with cancer, I was so grateful that I had the skills and understanding to make it possible for her to feel good for at least a minute. Good minutes are important when you have cancer.

To be honest, when I read this interview it was such a personal story, it felt private. Marianne said if her story could help others understand, then she wanted to share it. As a company we felt that was important to talk about how we care for our guests in their time of need.  – Geneva Cowen, Artistic Director for Sam Villa

MARIANNE: THE STORY OF ONE WOMAN'’S HAIR LOSS FROM CANCER

Interview by Lya Navarra, Contributing Editor for Sam Villa

 WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO SHARE WITH US ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE SO FAR?

"This time last year, I had my mammogram. After the mammogram, I had not been told anything but I just knew something was not right. I told a friend of mine, who is a breast surgeon, ‘I’'m pretty sure I have breast cancer’ and she said, ‘I’'m pretty sure you do too.’

...I began chemotherapy immediately after my diagnosis: Stage Two, almost into Stage Three cancer. It all happened so fast and I really didn’'t have time to do any research, especially to find out what I was in for. By the time I figured things out, I was already in the trenches. ...My reactions to chemo have been severe and I lost my father, and father in law at this same time."

CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR HAIR LOSS FOR US?

"You know, everyone has a ‘thing’ about themselves; great face, great body, great legs… – for me, I have a decent personality, a good sense of humor and my ‘thing’?  I had great hair! Even if hair is not your ‘thing’, it is still personal and intimate.

I started chemo right away. I recall it was on a Monday... I called my mom and told her that my head felt funny, like my follicles were going to release my hair and sure enough, it began to fall out.

I had been a client of Geneva Cowen for cuts and color prior to all of this and I absolutely did not know what I needed.  I did not know what to do so I called to make an appointment knowing I probably could not get in right away.  It typically takes a few months to get an appointment.

I let the receptionist know I had been diagnosed with cancer and that I thought I needed to cut my hair shorter. She placed me on hold for a minute and when she came back to the phone she told me to just come in - I can’'t remember if it was that same day or the next day.

When I arrived at the salon that day there were a lot of people there, some getting shampooed, some getting color and cuts, getting hair blown dry - it was busy as usual!  I did not realize until later that all the customers in our area of the salon had gone away, without me even realizing it at the time.  Where did they all go?  Geneva somehow had all the guests moved without me even knowing, one by one and then they were all gone.

And there I was with Geneva – I was crying, she was crying and I told her that I didn'’t think I had the strength to cut all my hair off yet. I mean, I knew that was part of the process, it’s what everyone does, but I said, ‘I want a cute short haircut!’  ....

So Geneva gave me a super cute short cut. And then she gave me her cell phone number and said, ‘Your hair is going to fall out, Marianne, it’s going to be gone by Monday.’  And I’'m like, ‘Really?’ and she said, ‘Yes and it’s going to be hard and I want you to call me and I'’ll be here for you. We will do whatever you want to do at that point.

I just loved the cut so much – so much so that I took a selfie when I got back into my car, I never take selfies!"

Marianne's Story: Coping with hair loss as a result of chemotherapy

THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR SHARING THIS BEAUTIFUL STORY!  CAN YOU TELL US WHAT IT WAS LIKE WHEN YOUR HAIR WAS GROWING BACK?

"My hair began to grow back in – totally different texture and color –I was a blonde and it came back in gray and kinky, like a Brillo pad!

Cancer is something that takes your dignity away. I was frightened and I did not want to leave the house. I looked very sick; rashes all over my face and body and I wanted so bad to go to my kids’ hockey games, musical performances and plays.  There was just no dignity in the battle for me.

I wasn'’t expecting my hair to grow back quickly but it was certainly a welcome sight!  I never really thought about losing the hair on my body in addition to my head – it was hard to look in the mirror with no lashes or brows.  And beyond the appearance, even though I did my Chemo in the summer, I was cold all the time; I was cold for a year!

So when it came time, about an inch on my head, I went back to Geneva and said, ‘Is it long enough to color yet?”.  She said, “We need to cut it”.  And I said, “Are you nuts?  I want to experience my hair to ‘move’ again!”  She said "we need to adjust the look so it would be beautiful as it grew out, small adjustments.”

I was finally not looking so sick and one night while out with my husband for dinner he turned and said, “You need to keep that short hair, it’s really fashionable and you look really cute!” Geneva had been saying all along that my short hair was an awesome look for me.

I had no idea what I needed until she did it for me.  It’'s hard for me to keep it together to talk about it…, but Geneva gave me things I did not know I needed.  It was all so significant.  Everyone needs to know this because where I was in such a vulnerable place.

There are very few moments of goodness in this fight, few moments when to think, ‘I can do this!’ ...We receive so much wisdom from cancer and Geneva gave me so much wisdom. She also put so much dignity into a process I did not know I was embarking upon. While Geneva hadn’t had cancer, she already had the wisdom about it because of others she had serviced behind the chair."

WHAT CAN YOU SHARE WITH US TO HELP A STYLIST SUPPORT THEIR GUEST IN THIS DIFFICULT TRANSITION OF HAIR LOSS, ESPECIALLY FOR A STYLIST WHO MAY BE ENCOUNTERING THEIR FIRST EXPERIENCE WITH A GUEST WHO HAS CANCER?

"...Life changes you and I think you gain wisdom through loss and pain. When you meet people in life that calm you, you get a sense of their wisdom. Geneva calmed me.  I get it now and I can appreciate others because I have learned some things the hard way. You do not have to lose a loved one to necessarily know how to help others —i't’s a gift.

Treat people with dignity and kindness and pay it forward – it’s such a beautiful thing!"

GENEVA COWEN SHARES BEST PRACTICES WHEN CLIENTS ARE UNDERGOING CHEMOTHERAPY:

  • When you get the call there is a time stamp on it. They need you now! Do what you can.
  • Ensure they have privacy. It is a painful process and emotions are high.  Allow them to go through it in an emotionally safe environment.
  • Offer to go to their home. Some people are very private and the journey and needs are different for everyone.
  • Consult your guest like you would at any other time. If I had to shave my head I would want to do it myself.  Then I may need assistance.  Some guests may want the haircut they never had the guts to get.
  • Be honest. It is all going to fall out. A cute haircut will only last a week, maybe....
  • If they want to start with a short cut make sure you are available to step in if they need you. It is not a beautiful process and can be very traumatic.
  • Try not to cry.  I am never successful but it is not about us. So I try to do it quietly.
  • When combing out their hair after a shampoo, face them away from the mirror.  Get the tangles out and move on. It will not stop coming out. It does not help them to witness it.
  • Find local wig masters and resources for them.
  • Refer them to scarf wrapping techniques that are beautiful.
  • When they're feeling better, set them up with a make-up consultant. Find an artist that is kind and talented. Department stores are great resources. Additionally, eyebrows and eyelashes typically fall out. Their skin and complexion will change and they will need assistance, new color options and techniques.
  • I tell them to get some amazing earrings, a conditioning lip-gloss, a rocking pair of shades and a cool hat. I call it “undercover hot.”
  • Be careful with your hair color selections when their hair starts growing in. Hair is so valuable to them they're not going to want to cut it off. Think six months out and make the choices from there.
  • Have empathy. Just be there for them.
  • Charging for your services is a personal decision. If you plan on not charging your guest talk to your salon management to ensure you have understanding.

From all of us at Sam Villa, please get your mammogram!  If this article can help the process or save one life, Marianne's sharing of her story will be honored.

Image Credits:
Model – Marianne Rush
Photography – Shalem Mathew
Hair – Geneva Cowen
Makeup – Lorina Alailefaleula

Please leave your comments and questions in the box below. Share Marianne's story and encourage your friends to get a mammogram!

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