Coping with Chemo: Helping a Client Through Hair Loss
Written by Geneva Cowen, Artistic Director for Sam Villa
Interview by Lya Navarra, Contributing Editor for Sam Villa
I have been a stylist for 22 years in Anchorage, AK. 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 four of her 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.
Lya: What would you like to share with us about your experience so far?
Marianne: 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 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.
Lya: Can you describe your hair loss for us?
Marianne: 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 colors 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, some getting a blow 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 alone 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!
Lya: Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful story! Can you tell us what it was like when your hair was growing back?
Marianne: 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 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.
Lya: 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?
Marianne: 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—it’s a gift. Treat people with dignity and kindness and pay it forward – it’s such a beautiful thing!