(This is a version of an article published in The Healthy Hairdresser section of MODERN SALON June 2014.)
When yet another staff member or client comes up with a diagnosis of cancer of the breast, colon, lung or some obscure region of the body you didn’t even know existed, it can feel as if the cancer cloud has taken up permanent residence over the salon industry. But we’re not alone. Cancer is the number two cause of death in the United States after heart disease, accounting for more than .5 million deaths each year, according to City of Hope, a salon industry partner designated as a Comprehensive Cancer Center, the National Cancer Institute’s highest recognition. Today’s frustrating statistic predicts that nearly one of every two men and more than one of every three women will develop cancer sometime.
But while every industry is part of the general population facing that current reality, as a close-knit community of caring service providers, salon professionals have the advantage of a valuable support network. From supplying educational pamphlets and offering free wig services to sponsoring a team for a charity walk or holding a cut-a-thon to help a diagnosed stylist or client pay bills, salons have been on the front lines of the cancer battle since the beginning.
Healthy Hairdresser has heard from salon pros who have experienced cancer first-hand. Here, we share some of their struggles and triumphs.
Love Letter to the Salon
She’s a hairdresser who decided to just be bald.
“I decided not to wear a wig,” says Rachel Gallagher, a stylist at Salon Legato in Farmington, MI, about her treatment last year for ovarian cancer. “I thought it was important to show my clients that, even though I am a hair stylist, hair did not define me. I cut my hair about two inches every week or so until it was very short. My clients loved seeing all the wild changes to my hair!”
The salon’s owner, Diane Cassidy, sat beside Gallagher in the doctor’s office when she learned that she would have a total hysterectomy, and the team sent gifts, offered monetary help and visited Gallagher throughout her treatment.
“I was told over and over again that this was going to be hard,” Gallagher says. “But, the truth is, it really wasn’t. I had so much support from my family and coworkers that I was back to work in four weeks. I never missed one day of work during chemotherapy. My coworkers spoiled me all day long, making it all so easy. I owe my life to my salon owner and BFF Diane Cassidy and the lovely ladies of Salon Legato.”
It took five months of aggressive chemotherapy, two weeks in the hospital, a stem cell transplant and a defibrillator for heart damage to fight salon owner Peg Brown’s 2011 double diagnosis of breast cancer and mantle cell lymphoma. After a year and a half, Brown returned to Ambiance Salon in Omaha, NE, to work three days a week.
“I had just opened a new salon with chair rentals,” says Brown, a board-certified colorist. “Along with my husband, my staff kept the salon together until I was able to come back.” Clients and stylists held a benefit to help Brown’s mounting medical costs, and some stylist friends bought her a wig.
“I got a lot of use out of the wig, as I lost my hair twice,” Brown says. “The plus is that my hair came back in a beautiful natural curl!” Being ill taught Brown valuable lessons.
“I have learned to be more patient and to enjoy people for who they are even if that is vastly different from me,” she notes. “Everyone is worthy of my complete attention and the very best services I can offer. Having a client run late or cancel no longer is cause for stress and upset. I am enjoying what I do more than ever, even after 46 years of hairdressing.”
A Legacy to a Hairdresser
When Cynthia Martin lost her battle with brain cancer in 2011, her family wanted to extend a helping hand to other families handling cancer. They established Cindy’s Legacy, a foundation to send out Chemo Care Packages containing costly pharmaceuticals, gift cards for groceries, payment for utility bills and little extras like books. Originally concentrated in northern Virginia, Martin’s lifelong residence, the foundation now has toolkits to help groups all over the country to conduct fundraising campaigns.
“For more than 30 years, my mother absolutely loved being a hairdresser, and everyone loved her,” says Martin’s daughter, Stacy Brooks. “It was devastating to her clients when she got sick. Some of them had been with her from the time she started doing hair as a teenager. They came to her rescue in so many ways and continue their support through our foundation. But we experienced a lot of financial strain and wanted to make this time easier for other families.”
Aware that the beauty industry meant so much to her mother, Brooks is thrilled to connect with Healthy Hairdresser.
“My mom would like knowing that Cindy’s Legacy is reaching out to the salon community and encouraging hairdressers to stay healthy,” she says. For more information, go to CindysLegacy.org.
Mondays at Racine
A Salon Commits
Cynthia Sansone and her four sisters watched their mother suffer with cancer and cancer treatment throughout the 1980s and, in 1989, lose her battle.
“Our mother was a double-process blonde,” Sansone says. “When she was going through treatment, her salon did not know how to handle her. We watched this woman who’d had bright eyes and a lively spirit darken and disappear into her room. She thought getting sick was her fault.”
Sansone and her sister Rachel DeMolfetto, both makeup artists, decided to prevent other women from having that feeling. In 1998, they opened a full-service, seven-chair salon in Islip, NY, that combined their first names to become Racine Salon & Spa. In 2003, the sisters fulfilled their dream of honoring their mother—they established Mondays at Racine to provide a full range of complimentary beauty services, as well as support therapies, to cancer patients undergoing treatment.
“It is about treating the person and not just the disease,” Sansone says. “When we facial somebody who comes in with anxiety, soon her expression changes. These clients are laughing when they leave. Our massage therapists say there’s a sense of love coming through their hands, even a sense of prayer.”
Originally held the third Monday of each month, the program expanded to more frequent Mondays after an HBO documentary about the initiative brought publicity. In addition, Sansone and DeMolfetto now have toolkits available for salons throughout the U.S. to hold their own “Mondays.”
You Can Beat Cancer
Initially, Bonnie Rarick’s gynecologist dismissed the lump as a benign cyst. By the time Rarick found out otherwise, her walnut-sized tumor, diagnosed as triple negative breast cancer, required eight rounds of chemotherapy followed by a lumpectomy and 33 radiation sessions. Rarick found it impossible to work during chemo treatment, but she returned to her salon after surgery and worked throughout her radiation treatment.
“During all of that time, my coworkers were the very best to me,” says Rarick, a stylist at Ritz Salon in Niceville, FL. “They chipped in several times to help me financially during times of no paychecks. They called me regularly and sent cards. They took good care of my clients, and I know that meant they had to work extra hours.”
Rarick’s clients were just as generous, staying loyal and working around her schedule.
“My advice is to seek out the best doctors,” Bonnie says after receiving that early false assurance. “Be strong. You can live through this, because many of us have done it. Love your coworkers and clients; besides your family, they are your best support. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes an army to beat cancer—but you can do it.”
Indianapolis salon owner Jennifer Miller was in her mid-30s and pregnant with her second child when one of several moles on her body turned out to be melanoma. As a teen, Miller had been a tanning enthusiast both outdoors and in tanning salons. She didn’t know how much trouble that might cause her.
Now 40 and never outside without some combination of a hat, sunscreen and mineral makeup, Miller is active in Outrun the Sun, an organization dedicated to educating people about melanoma risks and raising funds for research. Owner of A Do Hair Design and Adorn Spa and Boutique, Miller has brought the beauty industry into the conversation by developing the Salon Stylist Education Program, which trains stylists to recognize potentially cancerous moles on clients’ scalps. Miller’s efforts were recognized in last year’s Wella Charity Challenge.
Kimmy Gratzer was told that her prognosis would be good—but only if she could survive the intensive chemotherapy necessary to treat her acute lymphoblastic leukemia. The doctors weren’t kidding. By the last session of her treatment she was on a ventilator in the ICU with double pneumonia. When she finally left the hospital 18 days later, she had to learn how to walk again and still had a few more complications ahead.
Still, after nonstop treatment since September 2012, in the past few months Gratzer has begun to enjoy life again even as she continues maintenance chemo. She says her “saving grace” has been the salon she launched 24 years ago, Premier Hair Design in Kent, WA.
“Every day when I walk through that door, it reminds me of the beautiful clients I have inside and out, and how blessed I am to continue to be in a profession that I love more than anything,” Gratzer says. “The cards, emails, text messages, visits and all of the inspirational messages on Caring Bridge and Facebook have meant the world to me.” She thanks her University of Washington “medical dream team” and her husband and children. And then there’s the salon.
“I have to thank all of the ladies at my salon—Carrie, Flo, Shelby, and Mary—for taking care of my clients and keeping things running incredibly smoothly,” Gratzer beams. “I never worried about the salon, because I knew that my team wouldn’t let me down. I love you ladies with all my heart.”
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