VEAZIE, Maine — Hair is an accessory, a conversation starter and a part of a person’s identity. But for cosmetologist Charlene Boggins, it is also her mission.
Boggins, who owns Nourish Salon, based out of her home in Veazie, has spent the past year traveling the country perfecting the niche she found herself in a little more than a year ago — helping cancer patients cope with hair loss. It has been a busy but rewarding year, she said.
The journey began years ago when she started working with women who have fine or thinning hair. Boggins, who has fine hair herself, said she often felt left out of conversations about hair and beauty regimens. She would worry constantly about things such as where to sit in a group situation and whether the light made her hair look worse or better.
But then she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and lost all of her locks.
Finding her niche
Boggins spent 11 months going through cancer treatment, and it was during that time that she realized the longevity of cancer’s grip and the emotional toll it takes on patients.
According to a survey commissioned by the Personal Care Products Council Foundation, 82 percent of female cancer patients experience changes to their physical appearance. In addition, 75 percent of oncologists surveyed considered the nonmedical aspects of cancer — the emotional, social and physical side effects — to be “very important.”
Yet, only 26 percent of patients participate in any sort of support group, which can be critical to their emotional wellbeing.
“The experience of chemo, particularly for women who lose their hair … it really interferes with people’s body image,” Suzanne Drunner, director of Caring Connections, a program of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, said. “People really focus on pink ribbons and the treatment, and don’t pay as much attention to the emotional piece.”
Boggins said it is because of that emotional tie many women have to their appearance that she began to see the benefit of wigs, especially when faced with months or sometimes years of hair loss. She said even women who are proud of their baldness often consider a wig at some time during their treatment.
“There comes a time during those months when you don’t want to feel like you have cancer, you just want to feel normal … and a wig provides that,” she said.
Now Boggins helps people find and use head coverings, real or fake hair wigs and offers hair removal services, acting as a sort of mentor, and lending an understanding ear or hug as needed.
“The fact that she’s been there makes a huge difference,” Dunner said, explaining that turning to a hairdresser for support is natural for many women. “Women feel like they have to be strong for their families, so they don’t always use their families for support.”
An emotional process
Boggins understands firsthand the physical and emotional toll hair loss can have on a person’s self esteem. She knows about going from fearing the loss to accepting it and feeling empowered by the transformation. More recently, she has experienced the joy and challenges of getting that hair back.
When she first found out she’d be losing her hair, she spent days looking at photos of bald women. It helped normalize the idea to her, she said, and it helped her realize that there was more to beauty than hair.
“When someone has bright eyes and a beautiful smile, they don’t need hair,” she said.
It’s a message she encourages cancer patients, but also their friends and family, to take to heart. The hair loss process can be devastating, but friends and family should feel comfortable talking with the person about it.
“You want that person to know that you recognize what they are going through,” she said. “Tell that person they are brave, an inspiration and very beautiful.”
A lot of women want to control their hair loss and will shave or cut their hair very short.
Veazie resident, Bernadette Whitcomb, 55, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in January, said it wasn’t losing her hair that bothered her so much as wanting to be the one in charge of the process.
“To me, losing my hair was not a big deal, it’s going to grow back,” she said. “I was determined not to let it bring me down, but I also didn’t want to just watch it [fall out] so I opted to take control of it.”
Shaving can damage hair follicles, so Boggin offers a hair removal service — a one-hour head massage about 13-17 days after a person’s first chemo treatment. It’s an emotional hour, but she says a lot of women leave feeling empowered.
“You want to take your hair, you don’t want cancer to take your hair,” she said adding that she talks women through the process by sharing her personal insight which makes for “a much easier transformation.”
Whitcomb was able to leave the salon in Veazie wearing a brown bobbed wig that looked just like her hair when she walked in, “minus the white,” she said with a chuckle. She said that even though most days she’s fine wearing a cap, it’s nice to have the wig for work and other occasions.
“Some days I don’t care, but you do tend to get looks — maybe sympathetic, maybe curious, sometimes understanding, but it’s nice to not bring attention to that,” she said.
It has only been a year since Boggins starting focusing her attention on cancer patients, but she’s ready to do more. She has met with numerous cancer patients and attended a retreat with Caring Connections to talk with survivors about what their hair loss process and experience was like.
In the coming months, she hopes to give presentations at local support groups and elsewhere about hair loss and the importance of helping patients feel beautiful.
She also plans to continue raising money for the Angel Fund she established to provide wig scholarships for women who may not be able to afford them.
“I’m going to try and touch as many lives as I can … I really feel like I have something to give,” she said.