Hair is an integral part of human identity, framing your face and making you feel like yourself in a way few things can. For those who’ve undergone chemotherapy or worn wigs, losing that safety blanket can make cancer even more alienating.
Whether you’re a patient or a caregiver, the smallest kindness stretches far during an illness no one is prepared to fight. We’ve gathered stories from every side of the hair industry that prove compassion means everything, no matter your age, history, or career path.
Part I: The Hair Lover Going Bald
A career working in the beauty industry and maintaining beautiful blonde locks didn’t prepare Jen Bulkowski for a difficult transition into baldness. The former L'Oréal employee was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in July of 2018 after finding a lump on her collarbone. Hodgkin’s lymphoma (sometimes called disease) is a cancer of the lymphatic system, which spreads throughout the body and drains lymph into the blood.
Bulkowski was far from alone: By the time 2018 is over, the American Cancer Society estimates there will be a total of 1.7 million cancer cases diagnosed and more than 600,000 deaths from cancer in the United States.
Bulkowski remembers her diagnosis as the beginning of a months-long learning curve, one that had her learning the names of specialists and desperately trying to figure out a treatment plan.
“Cancer never touched my life. I had no friends or immediate family members that have dealt with anything like a diagnosis like this, so I was just like, ‘I don’t even know what to do,’” she says.
From the beginning, Bulkowski’s doctor made it clear that her hair would likely fall out during chemotherapy. Even so, it seemed like a thing that happens to other people—a clear case of the well-documented optimism bias, a psychological phenomenon in which we convince ourselves others are more likely to have something happen than we are.
“When I was diagnosed and they were telling me what was going to happen, my first biggest fear was I could die and the second biggest fear was I’m going to lose my hair,” she remembers.
When Bulkowski’s gorgeously maintained blonde locks started coming out on her pillow, she turned to a friend who’d also had Hodgkin’s lymphoma for advice. She was advised to cut her hair into a bob, then a pixie, then a buzz cut to get used to the way she looked without any hair.
“It’s not just the trauma of having hair all over your pillow, all over your sink,” she says. “It was like the wind would blow and my hair would fall out, but it’s honestly really painful and very itchy.”
Instead of letting a feeling of shame about her bald head sink in, Bulkowski took the opportunity to own the experience. On the day she buzzed off her hair, Bulkowski applied makeup, put on a beautiful outfit, and, at the prompting of her stylist and friend, posed for commemorative photographs.
“She took amazing photographs of me feeling very confident, very fierce,” Bulkowski says. “What I realized is you have this amazing opportunity to rebuild your identity into something different, something better, something even more powerful.”
Post-haircut, Bulkowski is a budding wig aficionado (“They’re very warm!”) and font of seemingly endless positivity in the face of medication and two to four more months of grueling treatment. She documents her experience on Instagram under the nickname The Unbound Photographer, a travel account she’s repurposed to provide a window into her treatment progress.
Part II: The Stylist Telling Her Clients
Cancer affects women on the other side of the chair, as well. Three decades into her styling career, New Hampshire balayage artist Heidi Conley, 56, was dealt a major blow in 2017. While planning her schedule for the holidays and booking guests, she got a call that made her stomach drop. A routine mammogram had revealed breast cancer hiding within her body.
What followed was a familiar story for anyone who’s undergone cancer treatment or known a loved one who did: a seemingly endless list of appointments, exams, and test results that happen over the course of weeks. For Conley, a single mother of two adult daughters who rents her booth at Portsmouth’s Salon Sabeha, worry stretched beyond her personal health to her livelihood. Should she need radiation post-surgery, she wasn’t entirely sure if she’d be able to continue working.
“You have to have enough energy to go through [chemotherapy and radiation],” she says. “You’d have to step back from your chair even further for a while. And then when you do come back, you have to deal with the actual visual part of what’s going on to you and that would’ve been a whole other set of challenges.”
Conley scheduled her bilateral mastectomy for February, giving herself enough time to inform the loyal clientele she’s styled during her 14 years at the salon. As a stylist, preserving a client list that’s been years in the making was crucial to Conley’s financial freedom and ability to pay for treatment. However, these women had also become her friends—a major factor in her decision to be totally honest with them about her diagnosis.
“I sent out an email telling all of my clients about what is going on with me, what is going to happen, and how I have arranged for the girls in my salon that I work in to take care of my clients while I step away from the chair,” she remembers. “When I returned and from this point forward, I lost maybe 10 clients—10 out of 140-some clients.”
Today, Conley looks back on her surgery, reconstructive procedure, and the ongoing regimen of medication with a feeling of gratitude. She’s cancer-free, although regular doctor’s appointments are required to ensure no cancerous cells make a reappearance.
Conley remembers her cancer journey as a radical adjustment from the mindset that had previously governed her career as well as her personal life.
“In my career, we’re givers and we don’t lean on other people,” she says. “That was probably the first time in my own career and in life that I really stepped outside and was really trying to lean on all of these people that have always been there for me.”
For those who are walking a treatment path of their own, Conley has only one word of advice:
“Just try to walk through the journey as calmly as you can, because you can get to the other side.”
Part III: The Salon Owner Welcoming Cancer Patients
For cancer patients, community is the only sure thing. Diagnoses and medication can change, but a group of stable, supportive friends stay put. In Cape Coral, FL, salon owner Sherry Macdonald ensures she’s part of that network by offering complimentary wig fitting appointments for patients who’ve lost their hair during chemotherapy.
Macdonald, who is a L'Oréal Professionnel artist, calls her business May-Rah-Kee Salon. The name refers to a Greek adjective, one that describes doing an action with love and creativity. True to the name, Macdonald uses her space to support local cancer patients as they adjust to life without hair.
“Going through that whole process, most people don’t want somebody asking them every day how do they feel, what's going on,” Macdonald explains. “We just wanted to do something...as they were going through the process of losing hair or trying to find a wig that fit properly and then having the wig look as real as possible.”
Rather than plop a shake-and-go wig directly over a cap, the specialists at May-Rah-Kee can customize the hair to suit any complexion and face shape—just the way they might for any other head of hair.
“We actually cut out wefts of hair, every other weft, and then we tweeze along the hairline just to make the wig have more movement and have it frame their face a little bit better,” Macdonald says.
Macdonald, who wears her own hair in a close-cropped style, wants May-Rah-Kee to be a place of care for women who spend hours in isolated doctor’s offices and sterile hospital rooms.
There’s a reason going to the salon is such a treat: The warm conversation, gentle head massages, and personalized attention often feel like a combination of the therapist’s couch and a day spa. Imagine, then, how much women undergoing a traumatic period in their own lives benefit from the sense of safety built within salon walls.
A client, a stylist, and a salon owner: Three women with unique stories whose lives diverged as a result of one disease. Together, they’re proving that a woman’s hair is so much more than how it’s styled—and that a caring relationship can help you through any illness.
If you or a loved one have been affected by cancer, call the American Cancer Society helpline at 1-800-227-2345 for accurate information, answers, and hope.