LINA’S STORY

“Is your hair going to fall out, mum?” was the question my youngest son asked me when I finally got the courage together to tell my three boys that I needed chemotherapy.

That was Monday June 23, 2014. Ten days after I’d first found a lump in my left breast, four days after a biopsy that came with positive news (“No plans for chemo.”) and just two days after a lumpectomy came with the hammer blow of “It’s worse than we thought. You will definitely need chemotherapy followed by a course of radiotherapy.”

It hadn’t really sunk in. I’d sat in the car park of the hospital with my husband, Joe, and we had both just sobbed together. Then we drove home to tell our three sons, Alessandro, 15, Luca, 12 and our youngest, 11-year-old, Matteo. I had to be as positive as possible as I looked at their faces as they sat round the table. Although I’d had a lumpectomy I would need chemotherapy treatment which would start in six weeks’ time. I was going to be fine because I was their mum and all five of us were going to get through this together.

So when Matteo asked about my hair, I just smiled, nodded and made a joke. “It’s a good job your dad’s a hairdresser,” I said. “And don’t worry. It’s just hair. It will grow back.”

I didn’t know what to expect with cancer and chemotherapy. I didn’t know I would go off my food or be so sick I had to be carried to the loo. I didn’t think so many of my friends would be there to hold my hand. I didn’t expect to laugh or to cry. I didn’t imagine I would find myself sitting in a room full of other women with breast cancer being shown how to apply make-up to my bloated face. I never knew how much I would appreciate five minutes cuddling with my sons.

But I did know that my hair would fall out. That’s just what happens with chemo. It shows the chemo is working, so in one way it’s a good thing. But I didn’t know how it would make me feel the day I woke up after my third chemo session and found big clumps of hair all over my pillow. I cried as I swept them away before anyone else saw them. This was my hair. I was losing my hair. I actually felt mortified.

I’ve always taken my hair for granted until it started to go. It is thick, it is chestnut brown and I have always worn it long. Since the age of 18, I’ve had lots of compliments about my hair – even back in the Eighties when I had a big bouncy terrible perm. And being married to a hairdresser, I’ve always felt my hair should look as good as it could. But to be honest, I’ve always taken my hair for granted. Until it started to go.

Joe had cut it into a bob before my chemo started. And as it fell out, which it continued to do, he would talk to me about my hair. I don’t think even to this day he knows how much that helped me because I couldn’t find much help online and I felt it was silly and vain to talk about my hair to people when what I was going through was so much bigger.

We talked about wigs. I didn’t want to wear a wig. Real hair ones cost hundreds of pounds and even then they didn’t look right on me. Joe understood. Scarves slipped off my increasingly thinning scalp but in my local shopping centre I found little cotton skull caps Muslim women wear under hijabs. Miraculously they kept the scarves in place. That felt like a triumph, a big step forward because I could go outside and not worry about my scarf falling off. But then my eyelashes and my eyebrows fell out and at Halloween I made a joke to the boys that children coming to the door would think I had made myself look scary. I don’t think they thought it was any funnier than I did, but we all tried to laugh. There was no hiding it. I looked like a cancer victim. And I didn’t want to be a victim.

That very day whilst the boys were out I asked Joe to shave off the remains of my hair. We both cried as the electric razor buzzed over my scalp but he told me it would grow back and I completely trusted him.

I can’t tell you every step I went through of my treatment – some dark, bleak parts I have tried to forget. But I can tell you how I felt when bits of chick like hairs began to sprout on my head. It was exciting and I felt reborn. My body was fighting back. I looked different. There were tiny curl, grey hairs, there were patches thicker than others and Joe took a personal and professional interest in every single hair that popped out of my scalp. He researched shampoos, chemical free dyes and new ways to frame my face. I went from Mia Farrow cut to a chic, short French bob. My boys didn’t avoid looking at my head. Matteo wanted to touch my new curls. It made me feel human, reborn, brave, happy and in April I got a compliment on my “lovely haircut” from a stranger. By the New Year, my hair fell – with Joe’s help – into a 1940s wave. Right now it is straighter, longer and – believe it or not – thicker and in better condition than it was before I had cancer.

I am a very grateful woman. I am grateful to the doctors who helped me, the friends who supported me and my family who were by my side every step of the way. But I can never even put into words how much compassion, hope, faith and self-esteem Joe gave me by a series of simple haircuts and an awful lot of love.

JOE’S STORY

When my wife, Lina, was diagnosed with breast cancer it changed my life.

It made me the weakest man I had ever been and it made me the strongest man I will ever be. It made me see that I – a guy who’s been a hairdresser since the age of 15 – could actually do something to make a difference. It gave me a mission. And that is Hair Reborn.

I cried when I first cut Lina’s hair. It was just after we’d been told she would have to have chemo. She sat in the salon smiling at me in the mirror as I cut her long hair into a bob. I was floored by her courage as much as I was floored by her cancer.
I can’t even actually remember the moment – a few months later – that I stood in our hallway and shaved off the few sad strands of her beautiful hair. My brain has blocked out that particular pain. But three years on, I have a crystal clear memory of the first Hair Reborn client whose hair I shaved, because I was able to look into her eyes and tell her that her hair would grow back and that I would be here and I would do everything in my power to make her look and feel great. Cancer doesn’t scare me anymore.
I’m not a doctor. I don’t understand cancer but I do understand hair and I do understand what you go through emotionally and physically when that chemo rips through you and takes your health, your dignity and your hair.
I saw what it did to my brave, optimistic wife as her hair fell out and the sickness set in. It made her frightened. It made her falter and that made me step up big time as a husband, as a father and as a man. I knew the chemo had to kill the cancer but there was no way I was going to let it kill Lina’s spirit or damage her sense of her incredible self.
My job is about making people feel good about themselves. The better you feel about yourself, the more you are ready to face the world. Given the horror of cancer this may seem like a small thing but though Lina and the women I’ve met through Hair Reborn I know how much this means.
I have learnt so much about the effect of chemo on hair and on the effect it has on women. I’ve seen Lina overjoyed by a half inch sprout of tufty hair, I’ve seen women sitting in radiotherapy still wearing hats or wigs hiding several month’s growth of hair that they don’t know what to do with. “The hair that’s grown back is awful,” one woman told my wife. “I don’t know if I should go to a barber’s because I can’t face going to a hairdresser. What would they think?”
Three years on, this is what I know. Your hair will grow back but at first it will probably be wiry, curly and difficult to manage. It may be white or grey. You may be horrified and ashamed by what you see but please don’t be because if I don’t have a cure for cancer I do have a cure for your hair.
You and your hair need special treatment. You won’t be sat in the middle of the salon and asked about your holidays. You won’t be asked to pay. You will sit in a quiet space. It may take time to take your hat or your wig off. We get it. We are trained. And we care. Your hair – just like you – has been damaged. It needs chemical free products – not baby shampoo – it needs shaping, it needs as much love and care as you do. It can take up to three sessions before you are ready to finally remove that scarf. But I promise. You will do. The greatest satisfaction I’ve had since Hair Reborn began is watching a woman walk out of the door with her head held high and a smile on her face. It makes me feel like we are winning.
So why did I start Hair Reborn? The answer is, quite simply, because I love my wife and because I am so very, very grateful I still have my wife. We met when we were both kids and the very first thing I noticed about her was her beautiful long brown hair. Three years on from cancer my wife has changed. She – and her hair – is stronger and more beautiful than ever before. She – and her hair – are reborn.

With special thanks to Louise Gannon for writing our stories.

With special thanks to Louise Gannon for writing our Stories.