Be the Change You'd Like to See in the World

I recently uncovered some alarming statistics about cancer in women. The American Cancer Society estimated that 212,920 women were diagnosed with breast cancer and 40,970 died from it in 2006. The second-highest incidence of cancer among females—lung cancer—will strike 81,770 women. Learning these statistics, it’s likely that one of your clients is—or one day will be—a victim. The good news is that survival rates continue to climb as new technology breaks ground.

One thing I have learned about cancer—breast cancer, in particular—is that it does not discriminate. I was surprised to learn at my 20th high school reunion that one of my classmates was diagnosed with the disease in 2005 and has been cancer-free for a year now; my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in her late 40s and has been cancer-free for 15 years. But it was the following words from my aunt that really made me stop and think. She, too, is a survivor.

“It seems that every day I hear about someone else I know being diagnosed with cancer—especially breast cancer, so it is a very important topic,” she writes. “For me, some of the most difficult parts of my cancer experience didn’t even involve the disease or the treatments, but, rather, people’s reactions to it, such as my hairdresser’s. I had gone to her for almost 10 years. She did a nice job with my hair, which always has been very thin, fine and straight. It grew back curly and thicker after chemo, and because I never have had curly hair, I wanted to keep it like this as long as possible. When I told her this, she said that I had to choose between curl and style—I couldn’t have both.

“She then went on to tell me that my hair looked terrible and very unprofessional, and made me look at least 10 years older. I expressed that everyone else said they liked it that way, and her reply was that they were all just being nice because they felt sorry for me because I had cancer. But she, as my stylist, felt that she had to be honest with me and tell me it looked horrible. I then left her shop and told her I was not going to come back, but not before she slammed the door and went into her salon, leaving me standing there alone.”

My aunt—a mild-mannered social worker—did not allow this woman to get the best of her. She has filed a complaint with her state’s licensing board of cosmetologists, citing unprofessional conduct and discrimination due to a medical condition. In her complaint, she stated that she did not want this stylist to lose her license. Instead, she would like to see her get some education related to sensitivity issues and caring for people who have experienced cancer. “People who have been through this have dealt with many months, and sometimes years, of their lives being out of their control,” my aunt adds. “Being able to say how you want your hair done—when you finally have hair—should be a very empowering thing instead of a humiliating experience like mine.”

In this issue, Teresa Paquin writes about this very topic in the feature “Skin Care With Compassion.” She details her own personal accounts of working with cancer patients in the spa, helping to boost their self-esteem and spirits. Ironically, Teresa pitched this article to me on the very same day that I received this letter from my aunt. It told me that this is an important message that needs to be shared.

My aunt says that the words of her former stylist still resonate with her, “and every time I look in the mirror, I wonder if my hair really does look as bad as she said it did. Having part of your body cut off and then losing your hair is a traumatic experience, no matter how strong you are or how well you are coping with your illness,” she notes. “Your self-esteem and sense of self take a profound hit, and remain fragile for a long time. It doesn’t take much sometimes when you are still vulnerable to lose that sense of strength and well-being that you have worked so hard to develop.”

She also told me that if her experience can help anyone else, then something good will have come of it. I hope that by sharing this message with you, that it has. Sensitivity needs to be kept on the front burner. My aunt has a new stylist now with whom she shares mutual respect, and this past experience will be filed away in the archives of her memory. She ended her letter to me with the quote: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” What a great outlook to have on life.

Until next month,

Melinda Taschetta-Millane


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