Friday, March 6, 2009

REPORTER BLOG: Head Coverings To Battle Cancer

by Julia Woehrle

"It's important because - can you imagine walking around without your hair? No," Nancy Kasler said. And she was right, I can't. I can imagine even less what it would be like to be diagnosed with cancer and have to walk around without my hair because of the treatment. When my colleague Ellen Schnier and I reported about the wig boutique at O'Bleness Memorial hospital, I realized how oblivious we are of the seemingly little things can become big problems once people suffer from a severe disease like cancer.

Athens MidDay TV-report about the O'Bleness wig boutique

The Awkwardness
I have to admit that I almost felt a little awkward standing in that tiny purple room talking about something I actually don't have a clue about. Something so grave and terrifyingly related to the possiblity of death. My encounters with people who were diagnosed with cancer have been few. To put it bluntly - in my family we seem to be more likely to die from heart attacks. I believe that one of the sources of the emotion triggered by the story about a store that provides cancer patients with head coverings is that if whether we want to deal with it or not - the image of someone who has gone bald due to cancer treatment resonates with death. And aren't we all scared of death?

A Committed Volunteer's Story
When O'Bleness volunteer Nancy Kasler told us her story, what she experienced in her life because of cancer, I was blown away. Five years ago her daughter was diagnosed with cancer. Four years ago Kasler herself was diagnosed with cancer. Three years ago her sister was diagnosed with cancer. I thought something like "How horrible!". And for myself so utterly incomprehensible as well, because there is no way we can know what it's like to be told that we have cancer or if the same happened to someone we love.

In this sense I'm a naive little child - I just can't quite wrap my head around it.

Nancy Kasler speaks about how looks affect cancer patients

Things We Can't Imagine
It was a humbling experience to report about O'Bleness's wig boutique. Because it made me realize how helpful even this room about the size of a broom closet and the moderate selection of head coverings it contains really is. I heard about and could feel the dedication that inspired the project. I also had to admit that I was really ridiculously whiny when I had that cold the week before. "Well, we hate to see a lot of patients," volunteer manager Susan Kozak said, "But for those who have hair loss due to cancer that's the purpose of the boutique. We help to assist people in any way possible, in particular ladies who have lost their hair."

Images of Health...and Sickness
We live in a world in which the visually perfect image of youth and beauty have come to count so much that we sometimes don't even consider ideas like aging and dying in dignity anymore. We don't like to talk about those things anyway. Aging is ugly because it tends to involve - yes, becoming more fragile, less healthy, or downright sick. It's wrinkles of wisdom against a botox babyface. I won't elaborate on my theories about why there is a whole Look Good...Feel Better program, which is specifically for women. Well, at least there is a brochure for men as well.

I guess it's only natural that if a woman loses her hair because she is sick, we are haunted with the arbitrariness of life. The possibilty of losing not only hair, but also our beauty, health and ultimately our life. After all, a woman's hair has a whole world of cultural connotations behind it - from Loreley over Rapunzel to headscarfs worn for religious reasons. We assume that a woman would hardly ever choose to chop of her hair completely just because she likes it. For men that's a little different - they have to fear turning bald at some point anyway... And a bald head is also more common among men as a political statement - including very questionable ones - or simply as an acceptable hairstyle for soldiers, business men and swimwear models.

Making Life a Little Easier
The background for the wig boutique is the need to provide cancer patients with free head coverings close to where they live and thus enable them to live a more normal life without additional cost and stress. As Kasler said: "Once you have been diagnosed and start your treatment you're not really in the mood to take a trip to Columbus or even Parkersburg." To be honest, I wasn't even in the mood to go to Columbus when I had a common cold... The boutique is also "just" the tip of the iceberg of the Look Good...Feel Better Program that in Kasler's words "can teach you how to compensate" for things like hairloss.

And I can't help but agree with her and Kozak: when you are sick you need to feel good about yourself and should not have to struggle with a chase for wigs and hats. What a blessing for cancer patients in the Athens area that someone like Nancy Kasler who really understands their situation is so passionate about making their lives a little better.

No comments: