The Power of a Pink Pom-Pom

Funny how life has a way of connecting complete strangers and transforming this connection into so much more! A few days following her guest talk at the Rose of Hope luncheon supporting the Norma Pfreim Cancer Center in Fairefield, Connecticut, One Wig Stand’s founder and managing director Loryne Atoui-Laham had the chance to bump into Alexandra Wallace-Currie of The Pink Pom-Pom Project at a local design fair (who it turned out had been at the luncheon a few days earlier and heard about our organization). The name alone is enough to draw you in, but wait till you hear how this charity is empowering (and keeping stylishly cozy) cancer patients within Fairfield and beyond:

  1. What inspired you to start “The Pink Pom-Pom Project” and where did the catchy name originate from?

I was diagnosed with Stage 2 Breast Cancer in October 2010 in London, UK. After the initial shock, horror and reality of my situation, I had to be a realist and get back to being a Mommy first. My kids were young and did not understand, let alone would not stand for mommy sitting or laying around the house. As cancer treatment goes, my chemotherapy sessions quickly started after surgery in November. My hair began to fall out in clumps everywhere I went: in the mall, in the shower – it was disheartening however, I had my three kids to look forward to, especially their beautiful smiles! Chemotherapy is not doubt horrible and sitting alone in the sessions is even worse. I am an eternal optimist and always try the find the good in every situation. So I would walk around the clinic trying to talk to people, but none were interested. I was so bored even catching up on sleep was boring! So I started to blog and knit hats and scarves for other cancer survivors.

One chilly afternoon in London and in my cozy room after chemo, I began to shiver. Women do not realize when your hair is gone, life can be freezing! So I started knitting a hat for myself.

“The Pink Pom-Pom Project” was named after I had knitted my own ‘floppy cancer hat’ and popped a huge pink pom-pom on top. My girls came into the room and cheered when they saw it. I asked if they would like to learn how to knit to help make hats and scarves for others. They both agreed and asked if we could call it “The Pink Pom-Pom”, I added the “Project” and three weeks later we were applying for a trademark!

Alexandra wearing the Pom-Pom that inspired her to launch this initiative. Image Source: The Pink Pom-Pom Project

Alexandra wearing the Pom-Pom that inspired her to launch this initiative. Image Source: The Pink Pom-Pom Project

I’ll say the PPPP came in the nick of time because my cancer treatment was a rough one. I had been hospitalized four separate times, other than surgeries even on Christmas morning and Valentine’s Day! We started the PPPP in London and we moved to the United States in December 2011. I opened my first physical shop in February 2012 and started our very first “Stitch & B*tch” group soon-after. These sessions take place every week on Monday and Thursdays. We try to help every woman we can in any way during cancer treatment and afterwards by providing art classes as a means of emotional therapy. In two and half years, we have connected with seven different organizations through Fairfield County and work with cancer survivors and inner-city youth. We teach arts and crafts and life skills, i.e. knitting and sewing to children ages 7 years+.

  1. What are the benefits of crafting for patients undergoing cancer treatment, or for cancer survivors, and what’s it like at one of your “Stitch & B*tch” groups?

When I was undergoing treatment – and I had mentioned before how boring chemotherapy can be – arts and crafts got my mind off my current situation. It helped me escape into a world of creativity.

xx

Everyone hard at work during a stitching session. Image Source: The Pink Pom-Pom Project

It was especially fun because between chemo sessions I would hold “Stitch & B*tch” parties at my home. We spread to crafting because a lot of people did not know how to knit. And I always provide instruction at all group sessions in case any one wants to learn, or has any issues. “Stich & B*tch* is fun and productive. We’ve also started introducing other projects, like lavender sachets as sleep aids and small quilts.

When women in need get together, it’s amazing how powerful just talking and sharing can be. Especially to someone who may have trouble expressing themselves or who is completely overwhelmed with fear by this disease.

  1. Your shop, “A Little Square” in Fairfield, plays a direct role in helping support “The Pink Pom-Pom Project”. Where do these two ventures overlap and how are they different?

”A Little Square” was started in London when I arrived pregnant with my second child. It was first a hobby. I would import hand-painted baby clothing and accessories by my twin sister, Shepherd. There were no cute preppy Americana gifts and baby stuff that was affordable for everyone to enjoy. Everything was too expensive, especially when you have to purchase ten gifts for all your new mommy friends! “A Little Square” has been in business since 2005 and was mainly a home-run/trunk show business for the first year. It then expanded to gift shows and became known as the Americana Chic Gift store – apparently I found a niche and it was fun while it lasted!

Now “A Little Square” serves an even bigger and better purpose. It currently underwrites “The Pink Pom-Pom Project” and provides supplies, materials, equipment, and instruction to the groups we work with all for free.

The PPPP prides itself on providing the same classes to under-privileged children. One of its many mottos is ‘Why take a child to K-Mart when you can take them all to Coco Chanel’ – the playing fields should be the same!

When you shop at “A Little Square” you are directly giving back to the local community. It’s a ying-and-yang kind of charity!

  1. The headscarves you make are not only beautiful with uplifting colors, but also very practical and comfy. How did you draw on your own experience to design them and what other items have you designed for patients?

I grew up in the 70’s and my mother’s hair started thinning after having six kids. So she made this amazing scarf that she would wear almost every day of the summer.

The design of our scarf is completely based off her own design with extra padding in front to give the illusion of ‘hair’ for patients. The crown part is slightly poofier too because when you are undergoing Chemotherapy, although you may be cold or hot, the skin on your head must breathe.

Because in spring it’s too hot to wear hats and beanies, we patterned our scarf in bright-colored fabrics designed by very talented textile designers, like Amy Butler, Heather Bailey, Kaffee Fassett and many more. PPPPImage_CraftSession1 In terms of designing other products, we make other things like Lavender Sachets, Prayer Shawls, Hats and Scarves, PPPP Pillows and now, thin Cotton Quilts for Chemotherapy.

  1. How many women do you work with/have you worked with on making these headscarves (and other products for patients) and what are some of the reactions of the patients who’ve received these lovingly-made gifts?

I would say from the time we started The PPPP crafting parties in 2011, easily 400+ people. We not only work with women undergoing treatment, but their families participate as well. We also work with The Girl Scouts of CT. We schedule GS Troops, many groups come between 13-20 kids, and they make Lavender Sachets for cancer survivors [to aid in sleep]. We also ask the children from our community centers to help make the Lavender Sachets.

My favorite part is the reactions from everyone involved. From the moment we start a project, I explain to groups about our charity and why they come together. When everyone understands the project, the excitement builds and goods get made faster! It’s really sweet.

We have a program called The Volunteer Of The Year (V.O.T.Y.) Quilt, which is made exclusively by cancer survivors for a dedicated volunteer in a cancer clinic. Their reactions are priceless because they never expect anything back!

PPPPImage_StitchSession2

Volunteers hard at work knitting to support cancer patients. Image Source: The Pink Pom-Pom Project

  1. You founded “The Pink Pom-Pom Project” while living in London and now you’ve expanded your reach to the U.S.A. Where do you see the charity heading next and what exciting projects can we expect in the future?

Well, that is a good question!

Because 1 in 3 will get cancer in the US, it is imperative we reach out into other communities and establish the PPPP as an optional therapy tool. I have always thought franchising was a possibility. I have been asked by other hospitals to come and share, that is on the agenda!

However, for the remainder of 2015, we have a very exciting project that will take The PPPP into a whole new direction. We are sponsoring Art Rooms within the inner-city youth community centers we teach at. Our very first Art Room will be at The Cardinal Shehan Center in Bridgeport. We will be redesigning their space, providing new options for art, especially offering Sewing Classes as an important life skill. Their current room is a little out-dated and needs a new bright look to encourage creativity. We are really looking forward to it!

  1. “The Pink Pom-Pom Project” donated more than 25 headscarves to our organization last month (June 2015) to be passed on to patients in Lebanon. We are beyond touched by this very kind and generous gesture. What message do you hope to send across to the patients who’ll be receiving them?
Our wig stand modeling the beautiful headscarves donated to our patients by The Pink Pom-Pom Project. Doesn't she look fabulous? Image Source: The Pink Pom-Pom Project

Our wig stand modeling the gorgeous headscarves donated to our patients by “The Pink Pom-Pom Project”. Doesn’t she look fabulous? Photographs by: Sally Mansour

There was an angel in my mist after I was diagnosed. After the initial diagnosis, I was in shock but I did not want to strike fear in anyone else. I could not walk, my legs would not support me. I was devastated and could not see the future, I could not see my life, I could not see my children. While I waited for the final results, a young woman walked in to the room I was waiting in. She was not a counselor or a Doctor: she was a Secretary in the Accounting Department. She said these two magical words to me “Six Years”. For a moment, I did not understand what she said. I assumed after diagnosis I was headed for the crematorium: life was over for me.

“Six Years I have survived from Stage 3 Breast Cancer. I am 27-years-old and know I have a future ahead of me,” she said. “You can do this my friend.”

So I stood up, wiped my face and tears away and said she was right. The fear subsided for the moment and I walked out of the clinic with a whole new perspective on life.

That young woman saved my life. Cancer saved my life as I watched the days drift away with frivolous activities that meant nothing to me or anyone else. Now I look at everything and live every day to the fullest. I pay it forward by working with people who need help.

This is my therapy and I hope you can help someone else in their journey back to health. others in their journey back to health. I would encourage women to make things for newly-diagnosed women because it would really help lift them up during this phase. Thank you and God Bless!

We’d like to take this chance to thank Alexandra, her team and everyone who’s worked on the headscarves through The Pink Pom-Pom Project for donating these gorgeous headscarves to our organization. The patients that have started receiving them as a result of this kind gesture absolutely love them!

Find out more about The Pink Pom-Pom Project:

* Feeling inspired to do something to help patients here too, but don’t know what yet? Or maybe you already have an idea but don’t know how to make it a reality? Get in touch with us and we’ll find a way!

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Interview: “The Breast Cancer Superhero Portrait Project”

It all started with a painting of her son as Spiderman – and then it became much more than just realizing a child’s innocent daydream!

The Breast Cancer Superhero Portrait Project is an inspiring initiative that celebrates the superhero inside every breast cancer patient. We reached out to the artist behind these empowering portraits, Barbara Porwit, to find out more about the project and to get to know these captivating superheroes better:

1. What (or who) inspired you to start “The Breast Cancer Superhero Portrait Project”?

This project started as many things do – an unexpected journey.

As an artist, I’d always been fascinated with figures and faces and in 2009 I did a portrait of my son as Spider-man. As you might expect, it was fun – and the image is fun — but it was also something more. As a viewer, you can tell that it’s a kid in a costume, but he KNOWS he can do it, he KNOWS he’s going to get the bad guy and save the day.

Zander as Spiderman: the original Superhero Portrait!

Zander as Spiderman: the original Superhero Portrait!

I realized this was about something that is in ALL of us. I was just beginning to explore this idea of the everyday superhero when it seemed everyone I knew started to get breast cancer.

Well, that is a journey that no one wants to go on – and like most people I was shocked, I was worried about my friends but I didn’t know what to do. Then I realized – what am I doing in the studio?

I connected the dots, and the Breast Cancer Superhero Portrait Project was born.

2. You are the one who usually asks this question, but we’d like to ask it this time: If you were to be immortalized as your superhero of choice, who would you be and why?

My goodness, thank you for asking this question. I am even more impressed with you now – this is one that is often overlooked (which I am fine with – the project really is about honoring and celebrating others).

It’s funny, I HAVE grappled with this question a bit and found I’m a bit hesitant to step into the superhero ring myself, but even so there have been a couple answers to that question that have been floating around.

One would be that we would do a family portrait, with me as Wonder Woman and with my son drawing the monsters that I would be fighting — another is something that pulled from my simple hometown roots as a girl growing up on a farm in Wisconsin: that I would be 4-H girl: that I would dedicate “my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to larger service, and my health to better living – for my club, my community, my country and my world.” and my costume would be just a t-shirt with the 4-H clover on the front and pictures of head, heart, hands on the back.

Another idea is that I would be the “Scient-artist” — and my superpowers would be science and art, and I would use them to help the world. My costume would be my studio pants all covered in paint with a white lab coat, lab goggles, a palette and paintbrushes.

I was always good at math and science and the other thing I am doing right now is taking classes to hopefully become a physician’s assistant – so hopefully I WILL use that power for good too in this world— as you can see I find that we have powers already within us and it’s about how we use them. I guess I haven’t thought that much lately about if I myself can fly….

3. Superheroes have a history of empowering cancer patients and promoting awareness (among them the viral super-heroine self-check posters featuring cat woman and wonderwoman). What’s the appeal and benefit of using superheroes in relation to cancer, in your own perspective?

Superheroines urge you to Self-Examine in these Mozambican Breast Cancer PSAs by Maisa Chaves.

Superheroines urge you to Self-Examine in these Mozambican Breast Cancer PSAs by Maisa Chaves.

This project, for me, is really just one focused application of the much broader concept of the Everyday Superhero portrait. Over the long haul, I believe I will end up working with people from all walks of life with this concept and help them find the superhero in themselves.

But for people affected by breast cancer, there are a few things I believe are special for them. One, we are lifting up for them what they have the opportunity to recognize themselves as going through the universal hero’s journey as described by Joseph Campbell: “An individual is called away from “normal life” and asked to go on an adventure away from society where they will face a great danger and undergo an extreme ordeal. If successful, they return to society bearing some treasure they are able to share with their community and they are celebrated and honored as the hero they have become”

We know that for all people facing a life-threatening illness, you cannot assume what “victory” is or what the “outcome” will be. But if they retain a victorious spirit, that is something that cancer cannot take.

Even so, we are also hoping that connecting with inner strength in a fun and unintimidating way will contribute to benefits of positive emotions, which is something research is finding can have significant impact on outcomes – in health, in life measures and in relationships.

"Wonder Woman Katy" from The Breast Cancer Superhero Project

Meet Wonder Woman Katy from The Breast Cancer Superhero Portrait Project

At a time when most of the decisions they have to make are gut wrenching, it is also a chance for these women to be in control of something that is limited only by their imagination – at least in their minds (and on canvas!) they get to be immensely powerful and capable of fantastic feats – and they get to look however they want and wear whatever they want. I give them the gift of coming up with the visual that tells their story the way they want it told.

4. How do you select the women for this project?

Well the project is still young.I started with women I knew, but we are now starting to work with people who come to us from coming through the studio and finding out about the project.

Lisa Phoenix Rising - the real-life inspiration (right) with her daughter (left).

Meet Lisa Phoenix Rising – the real-life inspiration (right) with her daughter (left).

In the future, it will depend on funding – how many we can choose from those nominated by loved ones, and how many may be sponsored by community organizations who want me to work with the hero they want to raise up and celebrate. We do have a nomination form and an interview form for potential subjects.

5. Does it take long to develop the superhero’s character and how involved are the patients/survivors in the process itself?

Oh, it’s very much about the process that each subject goes through.

We do not hurry it, it can take anywhere from 3-6 months from the first conversation to the last stroke of paint. I want them to take their time and be very comfortable with each step along the way.

We have a first meeting where I ask a few questions and listen a LOT. I have to find out about them – who they are, their cancer journey — that is key —- and then we turn the page by starting the process of re-imagining themselves after cancer. It really is an organic process individualized for each woman. Some come up with a strong simple concept right away, some take more time to really ponder things. Then we get to talk about boots! (and hair, and pose, and costume… it’s fun and meaningful all at the same time).

Wonder Woman Katy and the real life inspiration!

Wonder Woman Katy and the real-life inspiration!

6. Several of the superheroes you’ve developed have unique superpowers closely linked to the cancer experience, like Radiation Diva. Do you find it makes them more relatable to other cancer patients? Please share why.

Well, Jill (AKA Radiation Diva) was one of the women who tipped the scale for me and made me know I HAD to do this project. She – totally independently of knowing I was even doing something with superheroes in the studio, sent out posts during her radiation every day saying “such and such song was playing on the sound system during my treatment today -what superpower do you think that gave me?” — and people would write back and say “you got the power to make people walk the line – ” or “you got the power to make animals strike curious poses” or “you got the power to get Jessie’s girl” – so now she has her Radiation Playlist with all the songs and her list of superpowers she got FROM her radiation.

That just blew me away. You are going through cancer and THIS is what you are doing with it.

Yes, we DO hope that others going down a similar road, seeing these images and reading the stories about how these women have responded to cancer will open up their minds to options they have to respond to their own situation differently.

"She wanted her hospital bracelets transformed into “Wonder Woman” style bracelets, and now she’s deflecting those darn cancer bullets – big time!" - Meet Radiation Diva from the Breast Cancer Superhero Portrait Project. 

“She wanted her hospital bracelets transformed into “Wonder Woman” style bracelets, and now she’s deflecting those darn cancer bullets – big time!” – Meet Radiation Diva from the Breast Cancer Superhero Portrait Project.

What’s different about this project also is we are taking real individual people and giving them access to this superhero persona development, it’s not a superhero that is far off in the distance and outside themselves.

The other thing that is different is that we aren’t just talking about “fight like a girl” or focusing on the “battle” part. We are opening this up to letting their imaginations play with however they would be and whatever they would be able to do if there were no limits – and it’s much more playful and fun than just talking about battles and winning.

They are rededicating themselves to whatever cause they want to use their powers for – like Suzi Kazal Forst, who found joy and justice rose to the top and is now using her powers of humor to bring joy to the world and going on international justice missions to help widows in Uganda.

7. How have patients/survivors reacted to their character depictions and to the project itself (in general)? Please share any interesting stories or anecdotes, if possible.

There is something profoundly powerful that has happened not only for the superheroes, but also for their friends and family, their medical care providers and other people who have been through cancer or know someone who has been through cancer. It’s something that touches everyone seeing people they can relate to depicted in this way.

Katy Tessman Stanoch, AKA Wonder Woman Katy ( says that becoming Wonder Woman represented her return after the awful experience that cancer was – like it is for most people. She has gone on to write a book to help children understand what is happening when their mothers are going through breast cancer. Her book, “Our Mama is a Beautiful Garden” helps instill hope and understanding at a time when things can be bleak and scary. Her life is entwining with her new persona in big ways.

Meet Ruby Runner from the Breast Cancer Superhero Portrait Project (Photo Credit: Doug Webb)

Meet Ruby Runner from the Breast Cancer Superhero Portrait Project (Photo Credit: Doug Webb)

Anne Drow, AKA Ruby Runner, recently said this:

Anne “Ruby Runner” Drow: “When Barbara first asked me to be part of this project, it was almost like a dream come true. I was getting tired of being just someone who suffered because of the ravages of cancer. I wanted to be more than someone who survived.

I wanted the inner me to still shine through, and becoming the Ruby Runner gave me that opportunity. We have all changed in big ways and small. Some of the changes you can see, others you can feel. Some days I can move mountains, other days I could take on a newborn kitten and lose.

But, though the “new normal” is not my choice, I’m still here, I’m still fighting the good fight and still making people smile. So, it’s all good… No, I still can’t run and run and never get tired, but when the days are long and painful, I can look at her and know she is in there biding her time, waiting to come out and run!”  

8. What message(s) do you hope to send across to breast cancer patients through this project?

Basically, we hope to help inspire and celebrate the heroic nature of individuals affected by breast cancer.

By re-imagining themselves as playfully powerful, we hope to help breast cancer patients reconnect with inner resources they may have forgotten they had.

We also hope to create more opportunities for people to experience positive emotions and genuine connections with others during difficult times, and to help friends, family and community share in celebrating and honoring people they love and care about.

9. In a country, like Lebanon, where people struggle to talk openly about their cancer experience, do you find that relating it to superheroes and illustrations like yours helps bypass the taboo by giving it a different dimension? 

What is kind of magical about this project is that it is instantly approachable, playful and fun, at the same time moving and heartfelt. The underlying messages are definitely delivered and understood.

Everyone knows at least one person who has been through breast cancer (that’s too many people by the way) – and they all come away thinking about that person and what they went through – sometimes in a different way.

If that person is still alive, they might think about telling this person “I saw breast cancer survivors as superheroes today, and I think you are a superhero too –” it’s a way to change the conversation.

10. What are your plans for The Breast Cancer Superhero Portrait Project? Where do you see it heading?

There are many dreams for this project – but most of them will be dependent on the funds we can raise.

We want to go into different communities and serve them in whatever way works best for them – to bring the show with the paintings and the stories as a way to bring hope and encouragement and inspiration — we hope to offer additional art therapy “Show us your Superhero” workshops for patient support groups, family members and care providers so each community can create its own hall of heroes which will stay with them long after the paintings go to the next town — and of course the availability of commissioning their own superhero portrait to raise up their own hero to honor and have the large scale painting to be a permanent addition to their hospital or other community site reminding them of their own success story in future years.

Inspiring women at a Breast Cancer Superhero Portrait Project exhibition.

Inspiring women at a Breast Cancer Superhero Portrait Project exhibition.

We also are just starting the process of one of the other long term goals of the project: to offer the use of the images to help raise money for local patient support programs and potentially someday to help fund research looking into prevention and cause. Regla de Oro Gallery in Minneapolis, MN is currently seeking sponsorship to create merchandise (tote bags, Tshirts etc) to sell to raise revenue for the project and will donate a portion of proceeds to Angel Foundation which provides financial assistance and other support to cancer patients and their families here in Minnesota. The show will be at Regla de Oro March 17-April 26 with a fundraiser reception for Angel Foundation on March 21!

To find out more about the project and the superheroes, please visit “The Breast Cancer Superhero Portrait Project” Website and Facebook Page.


So, since we’re on the topic of superheroes: Which superhero do YOU relate to most or would like to be immortalized as – and WHY? We would love to hear your answers! Please share in the comments section below 🙂

Interview: “I Am More Than My Hair: Bald and Beautiful Me”

Alyscia Cunningham is a US-based portrait and editorial photographer who recently launched a crowd-funding campaign for “I Am More than My Hair: Bald and Beautiful Me”.

“I Am More than My Hair” is an awareness/social-change photography project that focuses on the beauty of being bald and follows Alyscia’s first book “Feminine Transitions” featuring a series of portraits that reveal the natural beauty of women of diverse ages and backgrounds without make-up on. Alyscia’s work celebrates natural beauty while also inviting us to challenge what beauty – real beauty – means to us, even when hair is lost.

Amy

Amy – Photograph from Alyscia Cunningham’s photography book “I Am More Than My Hair: Bald and Beautiful Me”

We reached out to Alyscia to find out more about her project and share her insight throughout this experience below:

1. In October 2013, you decided to make the cut and donate your hair to a cancer organization. This move, as well as the reactions of those around you, raised many questions for you about beauty standards. What were some of the notable reactions you received after cutting your hair so short and how did this inspire your latest project “I am More than My Hair: Bald and Beautiful Me”?

I’ve often heard, “A woman’s hair is her beauty” and “Your hair is your strength” from two different communities. I completely disagree with both statements.

It got to a point where I would tell myself “I am not my hair”. That single thought gave birth the the idea of my project I Am More Than My Hair, which is a response to that fact that I wasn’t my hair.

On that day, 16” [approx. 41 cm] of my locks were cut by Johnny Wright, Michelle Obama’s hair stylist, and donated for cancer patients. I’ve always had long hair and this was the first time I had ever cut my hair into a short style. I’ve wanted to cut it off once I realized my consistent head colds after swimming were related to the heavy weight of my locks not drying in time. Two years later, I was informed about the “Big Chop” and I gladly volunteered my hair to be donated.

2. You’ve been interested in beauty and addressing our relationship with it for a while now. Your previously published “Feminine Transitions” book features women without make-up and highlights the struggle of being vulnerable behind a lens. How are your two projects linked and how are they different in your perspective?

Both “Feminine Transitions” and “I Am More Than My Hair” relate to each other because they deal mostly with vulnerability. The participants were required to shed a layer to be photographed, whether it was make-up or a wig. The immediate difference that comes to mind is the subject matter.

However, there are more similarities than there are differences.

3. Tell us about your journey driving throughout Washington D.C. photographing girls and women for “Bald and Beautiful Me”. What stories came out of this experience and did you face any obstacles taking the photographs?

It has been a wonderful experience visiting new places within the DC metro area and meeting women I may not have bumped into otherwise. All the photos were taken outdoors or in a natural lighting environment: a favorite park, the backyard, by their bedroom window..

I wanted everyone to choose a location they connected with most.

I Am More Than My Hair: Bald and Beautiful Me

Tamela – Photograph from Alyscia Cunningham’s photography book “I Am More Than My Hair: Bald and Beautiful Me”

Most women opened up, telling me their personal stories about their experience with hair loss. Some shed tears. Others simply accepted it for what it was. Either way, it is a blessing to connect with women from all walks of life.

4. You have photographed more than 35 women of different backgrounds, ages and ethnicities for your project so far. What were common themes you encountered and how did your definition of beauty change as a result of those interactions?

My first reaction was noticing so much more than the hair of bald women and girls. I really got a chance to see the beauty in their features, their smile.

Hair not being there was less of a distraction. They had a natural radiance. It was raw beauty in all colors, shapes and forms.

Sala

Sala – Photograph from Alyscia Cunningham’s photography book “I Am More Than My Hair: Bald and Beautiful Me”

5. What message would you like to get across to women struggling with insecurities about their beauty? What would you tell your younger self today?

I always tell women that we are all uniquely beautiful. Don’t look to the media for an answer to beauty. The media bombards us with Photoshopped images and Photoshop is a lie.

I would tell my younger self to look for my worth within myself, and not from what others say to or about me.

6. In Lebanon (and much of the Middle East), beauty standards are quite high and this add lots of pressure on women to constantly keep up appearances. As such, when a woman loses her hair as a result of cancer treatment, it is even more difficult for her to cope and the majority will avoid being seen or opt to wear wigs during this period. This is also related to the taboo linked to cancer still being witnessed in our society, but the issue of beauty and social perception remains. What insight can you shed for women living in our part of the world on this issue and what kind of awareness do you think is needed to help overcome it?

In no way do I tell a woman going through cancer treatment how to feel. What I can offer is encouragement. I will do my best to let her know that she is beautiful despite her temporary (or permanent) hair loss. I can also offer a connection with another women on this side of the world going through the same experience, who can also encourage her.

I also make it a point to speak about the media’s view of beauty as compared to reality. Showing non-Photoshopped and Photoshopped has a huge impact on our self-perception.

From my experience, real pictures of well-known people in the media make the idea of beauty less threatening. The media sells insecurity. I use that outlet as a tool to sell positive self-imagery, showing individuals as everyday ordinary people.

Erika - Photograph from Alyscia Cunningham's photography book "I Am More Than My Hair: Bald and Beautiful Me"

Erika – Photograph from Alyscia Cunningham’s photography book “I Am More Than My Hair: Bald and Beautiful Me”

7. You recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a documentary you’d like to develop based on “Bald and Beautiful Me” How was the experience for you and do you plan to relaunch the campaign in the future?

Unfortunately, there were complications with Kickstarter so I decided to launch my crowdfunding campaign on YouCaring.com. My goal is to raise $25,228 in order to be able to produce 1,000 copies of the book and 500 copies of the DVD documentary. Many people don’t understand that this small number of production still takes a great deal of work and dedication, which in turn takes money.

The money raised will also go towards the marking cost of producing both the book and DVD. At first, I was recording the stories of the participants for my crowd-funding campaign but decided to actually compile them into a documentary.

There stories are so personal and heartfelt that I had to share them along with the book.

8. In closing, please continue the statement in your own words: “I am more than my hair and/because …”

… my hair does not determine my strength or ability.

Jameelah

Jameelah – Photograph from Alyscia Cunningham’s photography book “I Am More Than My Hair: Bald and Beautiful Me”

Keep posted for more on “I Am More than My Hair: Bald and Beautiful Me” here.

We’d like to turn to you now: How would you continue the statement “I am more than my hair and/because …”Please share in the comments section below.

Lara’s Story: Two Years Later

We first interviewed Lara two years ago but even with the time that’s passed since, her story continues to inspire until today – as has been proven with the tremendous response her post has garnered in the past week when we re-shared the original post. And it comes at a perfectly-fitting time with breast cancer month in full swing and the need for the right awareness ever-present. Nothing gets the message across better than hearing it from someone who has not only fought but beat cancer because of early detection.

For those of you who have been closely following Lara’s story and are wondering how she’s doing today, we did the following interview to share with you the latest chapter in her ever-inspiring story. Life may be going one way once you’ve just completed treatment, but how much (or little) do things change when one year, two years, or more have passed?

To get more insight on this subject, we posed a few questions to this very inspirational survivor and here’s what she had to say:

1. In our first interview, you introduced yourself as Lara, the “twenty-seven-year-old breast cancer survivor”. How has this introduction evolved since and how do you introduce yourself today?

I was chatting with a friend of mine last week about someone who recently got diagnosed with breast cancer – and for a moment I had completely forgotten that I had undergone the same thing!

I think our mind is programmed in a way to keep us going without looking behind – except when we purposely choose to.

2. Has the experience left any physical scars?

I have a couple but they are barely noticeable thanks to my genius doctor, whom I love!

Other than that, does a tattoo count?

I was once labeled as a girl who had cancer. Now, I am labeled as a survivor – literally.

Lara's tattoo

3. More than 5K views and 1.6K likes later: your post on our website has undoubtedly reached a wide audience and touched many. How did people, in general, react to your story (especially those who didn’t know it before) and are there any notable responses that were shared as a result of the post?

I’ve received lots of messages from friends and random people admiring my courage and stating I was an inspiration; all of which delighted me. However, my aim is to raise awareness and encourage women to get examined. I guess I’ll never know for sure whether they’re doing it or not, but I’d like to think they are.

4. How would you describe life post-cancer? Any self-discoveries along the way since our last chat?

In the previous interview two years ago, I had mentioned how I am still very much the same person: still the same friends and still enjoying the same things in life. This still stands. And all those stories you hear or read about how someone had completely metamorphosed are either fictional or perhaps I am just odd. I hope it isn’t the latter!

I must say, though, that today my appetite towards discovering new things has definitely multiplied; simple pleasures can make me euphoric.

Oh – and one thing that has constantly been changing in the past three years is my hairstyle.

LaraTwoYearsLater-Photo02E

5. Speaking of which: has your hair grown back to the way it used to be before chemotherapy? What’s happened to your wig since?

When I had very long hair, I used to threaten hairdressers not to cut more than a centimeter or so. Now I can’t stay away from my adored hairdresser for more than a month.

Only recently have I been growing it back a little but every time I come across a woman with short hair, my heart goes “boom!”: it’s bold, it’s got attitude – it’s different.

Concerning my wig, it’s in the same place it has been since my bald days: deep down in the closet – speaking of which, I’d like to donate it to a cancer patient who will actually wear it!

6. We can’t help but smile each time we look at your “Finish Line” photograph in our previous interview. Do you do anything special to celebrate each year since completing your treatment?

The ultimate celebration will happen once they find a cure. There are so many women out there fighting breast cancer, so we haven’t won the war yet. However, we’re winning many battles thanks to early detection.

I’d like to quote my dear brother here:

“Every milestone is a celebration. Every survivor is a celebration of life. It springs hope in people and inspires them to remain positive and be mentally ready to challenge and beat cancer. We always have to celebrate our small wins in everything we do. This leads the path to bigger celebration – which in this case is cure.”

7. One of the biggest fears women who’ve undergone cancer treatment share is a fear of recurrence. Does that fear diminish as the years pass and what are your particular thoughts on this?

I don’t really think about it unless I’m prompted. There’s no point in living in anxiety and fear of something that’s uncertain: it just drains all your energy and for nothing! This applies to everything in life, not just health.

Hopefully it will never come back, but if it does, I now know the drill and I will do my utmost best to kick its ass the same way I did before.. if not stronger!

8. What does the month of October mean to you as a survivor?

I love it when in October I see random people wearing the pink ribbon, shops changing their window display to pink or nail bars promoting their pink range. It’s just so cool!

But at the same time, I hope awareness is being raised through all of this and that it’s not just for show. I also hope that awareness is not just brought up during this particular month but rather continued all year long.

LaraTwoYearsLater-03

9. Is there any advice you’d like to share with other women reading this?

For starters, stop postponing your routine medical check-ups.

Yes, we all dislike wasting those two hours at the doctor’s waiting area but what are two hours compared to hundreds of hours spent in chemotherapy sessions, radiation therapy, surgery, bed rest.. You get the picture.

Even more so: those two hours could extend someone’s lifetime so please go waste them – and with a smile.

And take your mama with ya!

10. We would like to end our interview with a similar question to that with which we closed our first interview: What kind of breast cancer work and/or awareness would you like to see more of in the region?

Currently, most awareness campaigns are targeted towards women above a certain age. They are often lunches for socialites where large donations are expected, where awareness is disseminated in an old-fashioned way, etc. So what I’d love to witness is more striking campaigns and events targeting the younger generation who seem to believe they are not at risk.

Ideally, awareness campaigns that are able to convert into results whereby each and every woman gets a check-up and help us really fight the war against breast cancer.

So whomever wants to join forces, please raise your hand!

LaraTwoYearsLater-04* All photographs in this interview are provided courtesy of Lara.

Hope Not Fear: Finding the Silver Lining

Most women dread losing their hair and having to wear a wig during their treatment. It’s really hard to accept losing such an integral part of your appearance and femininity – even if temporary. An added concern is how others will perceive that hair loss and treat you as a result of it. To add a fresh perspective to this important and sensitive subject, we conducted an interview with Cheri who we first met a few days.

What stood us for us immediately upon meeting Cheri is her refreshing attitude to wearing wigs, adding her own creative approach to making the experience more fun in light of a difficult situation. She shares all about her diagnosis, the daily ups and the downs, on her blog “Hope Not Fear“.

A strong woman worth getting to know a little further, here’s our interview with Cheri and we hope it inspires you as much as it inspired us:

  • Tell us a little a bit about yourself and your blog.

My name is Cheri Lewis. I am 38 years old and I live on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. I am happily married to an amazing, supportive man. We have no children, but we have 2 dogs (who are like my children).

In July 2012, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

I created my blog “Hope Not Fear” to keep my friends and family updated on my journey. It’s been a way to share with the world all the good and the bad. It allows me to express how I’m feeling throughout my fight. I hope that by sharing my journey, I can help others fighting their own battles find hope, stay positive and realize they are not alone in this.

  • How did you react when you were first diagnosed with breast cancer?

When I was 20 years old, the University of British Columbia approached my family to do some genetic research on our blood line because my family has had a large number of breast and ovarian cancer cases (going back generations). They ended up finding a mutated gene in our blood line: the BRCA gene. This was an amazing discovery as now women all over the world can get tested for this gene to know how high a risk they have in getting breast and/or ovarian cancer.

I tested positive for both BRCA 1 & 2 –  which is breast and ovarian. I had the option of removing my breasts and ovaries at that time but as I was only 21 years old, I wasn’t ready to make that kind of decision. I was screened every 6 months through mammograms and MRIs after that.

Although I knew for several years that I had an increased likelihood of getting cancer, nothing could quite prepare me for the day my doctor informed me that I had breast cancer.

I stayed composed at first (perhaps it hadn’t really set in) and asked lots of questions: “What was our next step?” “How far had it progressed?” etc. It wasn’t until my sister hugged me that I broke down in tears.

The weeks and months that followed seemed unreal. I was mostly in a daze. The scariest part for me was when I had my first appointment with my chemotherapy oncologist. After discussing my options, he started explaining survival rates. The numbers and reality of the situation really hit home that day. This shocked and scared me because not once before did I think I wouldn’t survive this. But I will survive this.

Cheri meeting with surgeons following her diagnosis (Image Source: Hope Not Fear)

Cheri meeting with surgeons following her breast cancer diagnosis (Image Source: Hope Not Fear)

I choose to stay positive. I really believe that positivity and hope cures all. If your thoughts are negative, your body will not respond as well to treatment. I was given this life because I am strong enough to live it!

  • For many women, a big fear upon hearing that they have to do undergo chemotherapy is the impending hair loss. Was that of particular concern to you?

Yes – I think it is a HUGE concern for every woman.

It seems silly that hair would be the biggest concern. They inform you of the many other scary side-effects, like sores in the mouth, menopause, finger nails lifting-off (the list goes on and on), but the one that sucks the most is the hair loss.

Many people have said to me “It’s just hair, no big deal…” – I don’t see them shaving their heads. They also say “It’ll grow back” – yes, eventually it will but going through all the emotional turmoil that comes with being diagnosed with cancer and then having that somewhat-alien reflection in the mirror reminding you everyday [that you’re sick] is very challenging.

For men, it is also different. Many men live daily with a shaved or bald head. They wouldn’t really get looked twice, but when people see a bald woman, they instantly see a cancer patient and I don’t like the look of pity in their eyes.

Don’t pity me: I am a warrior and shaving my head was just a part of preparing for battle.

  • Have you been able to go bald in public since starting treatment?

Only my close friends and family have seen me bald. At home, I don’t wear a wig or scarf, but if someone I don’t know that well comes over, I will throw something on my head. It’s more for them not to feel awkward than for me.

A few days after I’d shaved my head and completed my second chemo treatment, I went out to lunch with my sister. I hadn’t purchased any wigs yet and was just wearing a toque. Then, we started talking about exposing my bald, pale, shiny head to the whole restaurant. We giggled about it but I got so nervous!

It was funny how I could be brave enough to battle cancer but too afraid to show my bald head to strangers in public.

After a few more silly, nervous giggles and a few deep breaths, my sister counted to three and I removed my toque. I sat through my entire lunch bald. I felt more empowered than ever that day because I had conquered a fear. I felt that I can really do anything!

  •  You recently shared photographs of yourself with the different wigs that you’re wearing during this period, each reflecting a different side of your personality (or so we presumed). How did you choose these wigs and how many do you currently own?

At first, I purchased two high-quality wigs from a local wig shop. I wanted some expert advice on fit, comfort and to have different options to choose from. “Ginger” is synthetic; what you see is what you get. She cannot be styled. I chose her because of the fun color.

All the other wig options in the shop were pretty “safe” styles, and in my perspective, boring (I have always had fun with my hair). “Mary-Anne” was my splurge – she wasn’t cheap. She is 100% real human hair. I can wash, curl, flat-iron, cut and color it – anything I could do if I still had my own hair.

I purchased four more wigs online from Hair Sisters. This was the only website I found with some fun, funky-styled wigs that were also very reasonably-priced. I wasn’t sure how “real” these wigs would look as they are synthetic and sometimes synthetic hair can be very shiny (plastic-looking). Even if they look a little more “fake” than my more expensive wigs, they are fun with wild colors so that’s fine.

I have many options now. If you could see my closet and my huge selection of shoes, you would understand my need for more than a few hair choices.

Source: Hope Not Fear

Some of Cheri’s wigs and their personas (Image Source: Hope Not Fear)

Anything that can bring excitement and fun to a scary situation is worth it.

Rather than be sad about facing my day in public, I get to have some fun deciding which “personality” I wish to wear that day. Each wig is a personality and a piece of my own personality.

  • Which one’s your favorite? And why?

Mmm… I’m not sure. I really like them all!

I would have to say it’s a tie between “Ginger” and “Mona”. My friends and family love “Ginger” the most. They request I wear her the most but sometimes she is a hassle as her hair is pretty long and tends to get tangled up. On the other hand, “Mona” is a super-short style so she’s very easy to wear and never gets in the way. I can wear big scarves around my neck without having it compete with the hair.

Image Source

Cheri, second from the left, is wearing “Ginger” here (Image Source: Hope Not Fear)

I have had random strangers compliment me on these two wigs, asking who my hairdresser is because they love the cut and color. I have them all fooled!

  • How do you decide which one you’ll wear each day?

Having so many choices is sometimes a bad thing. It makes it harder to decide.

Sometimes it depends on the weather conditions: wind and rain can reek havoc on certain wigs. It also depends on my outfit for the day, where I’m going and what I’m doing. For example, “Ginger” being the fun red color that she is, can clash with certain outfits. If I am hosting a dinner, I stick to my shorter styles as I don’t want to have a fire hazard attached to my head.

  • Has taking this approach helped you cope better with the physical side-effects of chemotherapy and the way you look? 

Yes, as I mentioned earlier, anything that makes you feel better when going through so much is definitely worth it. You can be seen in public and not get pitied just because you’re a cancer patient.

It’s also exciting to choose a style for each day.

Getting complimented on your “hair” is therapeutic in a strange way.

  • Would you encourage other women to do the same? And why?

Definitely if it helps them feel better but to each her own. Some women embrace “the bald” and feel powerful – like that day I went bald in the restaurant. I felt powerful too, but for me, that was more of a hurdle to cross. I may do it again one day.

In my case, feeling a little more “normal” on the outside makes me feel a little more “normal” on the inside too.

With my body going through so much because of the chemo, something as seemingly “trivial” or “vain” (to some) as hair, can be uplifting and fun, improving a crappy situation. When faced with a life-changing hurdle, try to make the best of it by finding a silver lining.

  • What advice would you give to a fellow breast cancer patient reading this?

My biggest advice is to choose hope, not fear.

Cheri's motto in her fight against breast cancer (Image Source: Hope Not Fear)

Cheri’s motto in her fight against breast cancer (Image Source: Hope Not Fear)

Being afraid is, of course, a natural first reaction. I have been there too, but fear is a cancer in and of itself. Being sad and afraid will not help you heal. At the same time, it is also o.k. to be angry sometimes and to have bad days but always remember that life is to short to wallow in sadness.

As horrible as cancer is, it has had a positive impact on my life. In the last few months, I have discovered more about myself than I ever thought I could. I don’t sweat the small things anymore. I now appreciate the little life experiences that I may have overlooked before. I am very thankful for myself, my strength and positivity.

My relationship with my husband has also grown much stronger than ever and I’m overwhelmed by the support of my friends and family. I have also made new friends (some I haven’t even met in person) with other warriors and survivors that have shared with me their battles. We’ve laughed about the coincidences and the humorous sides of chemo and reconstruction.

My final advice: Be strong. Stay strong. Lean on your loved ones. Be a warrior. Fight like a girl! Find the silver lining. Enjoy life. Don’t let this get you down. You were given this life because you are strong enough to live it.

If I can do it, so can you!

Follow Cheri’s journey on her blog “Hope Not Fear” and feel free to share with others who might benefit from her powerful message.