Four women confront cancer and hair loss in four different ways

By Rochelle Oliver
The Palm Beach Post

How a woman addresses hair loss from chemotherapy and radiation treatments is personal. Some bravely face the world with bald heads. Others become master stylists of bandannas, turbans, hats and wigs.

“Hair is an important component in feeling good about yourself,” said Dr. Jerome J. Spunberg, a radiation oncology specialist. “If the patient is depressed, it affects how they take the treatment and how they feel during the process.”

We spoke with four local women with different approaches to styling their bald heads.


LISA STEVENS, 45,
Jupiter
Diagnosis:
Stage three Invasive squamous cell carcinoma (rectal cancer)
Occupation: A single mom and server at Carmine’s Ocean Grill Inc.

“I can beat this,” Lisa Stevens said during a fitting for a custom wig courtesy of the nonprofit organization Couture for Cancer.

The brown synthetic wig she has been wearing is limp and straggly like a wig used for a Halloween costume. It can’t be washed, slept in or styled. The ends tangle around her chin and shoulders. There’s no volume at the top.

Beneath the wig, Stevens’ chemo-fried hair lies gray and flat on her head like pressed grass.

In February, Stevens was diagnosed with rectal cancer. Since then, she has survived 35 radiation treatments and 10 days of chemotherapy.

On Mother’s Day, Stevens began losing her hair.

“You feel like you’re losing your beauty. Your self-esteem goes way low,” Stevens said. Within two weeks she lost all the hair on her body.

At first, she collected her dead hair from around the house — patches left on pillows, her shoulders, her bed — and rolled it in her hands like dough. She piled the hair balls in the corner of her bathroom counter.

She doesn’t know why: “I just couldn’t believe it was happening.” She tried wearing a scarf to cover her bald head, but she felt people staring “like when you were a teen and had a big pimple on your face.”

Then she tried the synthetic wig but was always afraid it would fall off. The hair she is receiving through Couture for Cancer is custom-made for her scalp. She can sleep in it, swim in it, work in it and style it anyway she pleases.

“I can buy shampoo again,” Stevens said. And, when she looks in the mirror, she sees herself again.


PAMELA SPEER, 49,
Palm Beach Gardens

Diagnosis: First diagnosed with stage three colon cancer in May 2005. It metastasized to the brain in November 2005.
Occupation: Runs her own law firm

The good thing about being bald? Less upkeep. The bad thing? You get cold easily.

“If the hair grows back, I’ll still keep it short — the showers are quicker,” Pamela Speer said from a makeshift office in her living room where she is working following a chemotherapy treatment.

Speer was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer in 2005; since then, she hasn’t stopped working. Staying busy keeps her fears at bay.

Her husband, Scott Connelly, 54, rarely leaves her side. He makes sure her feet are covered, brings her a drink when she’s thirsty and frequently asks, “Honey, do you need anything?”

On the top of Speer’s bald head are thumb-sized indentations where a cancerous tumor was removed. She tips her head down and runs her fingers in the crevices. “I accept whatever my appearance is,” she said. “Maybe because I’m confident.”

She attributes her self-esteem to her friends’ accepting reactions.

She has done the wig thing once or twice, “but rather than have a wig pop off, I’d just go bald,” she said.

“Hiding your baldness is the worst thing you can do. People have in their minds that baldness is unusual and that they’ll stick out like a sore thumb. Most people have had some contact with cancer. They’re much more forgiving than the cancer patient originally thinks.”

DOROTHY PALERMO, 68,
Boca Raton

Diagnosis:Cancerous brain tumor
Occupation: Retired

“I look retarded,” Dorothy Palermo said about her baldness. “I wouldn’t have liked seeing it on anyone
else.”

Palermo wears something on her head at all times.”I won’t even go to the mailbox without anything on my
head,” she said. Three bandannas rest on umbrella handles near her front door.

“It’s just sort of embarrassing,” Palermo said. “When people look at you, they know you have cancer.”

A couple of years ago, she started having problems remembering small things.

“I knew something was wrong,” Palermo said. “I just didn’t expect it to be cancer.” A CAT scan revealed a large mass pressing against her brain. She had to undergo 31 radiation treatments. After her 10th treatment, she lost her hair.

“Having cancer didn’t bother me. Losing my hair bothered me terribly,” she said.

At first, she bought all sorts of hats, from big straw hats to baseball caps, but nothing made her feel good. So she went to an American Cancer Society office and walked out with three wigs.

“I felt like a kid in a candy store,” she said. She left with a brown short wig, which curls around her ears and a wavy, blond, shoulder-length wig, which is her favorite.

“I wanted to feel like a darling,” the natural brunette said. Even when her hair regrows, she’s not parting with the blond wig.

ALEXIS BISHOP, 10,
Boca Raton
Diagnosis:
Leukemia
Occupation: Fifth-grade student

Alexis Bishop makes bandannas to fit every occasion and outfit. One reads “Pretty in Pink.” Some fit holidays such as St. Patrick’s Day, Valentine’s Day and the Fourth of July. Her favorite has an animal-print fur around the brim.

She wears the bandannas because leukemia treatments left her bald. One of the hardest parts of Alexis’ ordeal, said her father, Mike Bishop, 42, was the night her hair fell out. “It was devastating actually.”

That night, while sitting on the edge of a bed, Alexis’ mother, Annamarie, was brushing her daughter’s hair while she watched TV. When Alexis turned around, the bedspread and her mothers legs were littered with her own hair.

“She saved the hair in a Ziploc bag,” Annamarie said. “I put it in my closet in a special place, in a special bag,” Alexis said. “Every week, I go back to it and look at it. I take one strand out and put it back in.”

Alexis has waited almost a year, and she’ll be waiting even longer, for her blond hair to regrow to shoulder length again.

In the meantime, making bandannas has been a crafty way to keep Alexis busy and positive. She has a wig but chooses not to wear it, preferring to accessorize with bandannas from her collection.

“The wig is itchy and sweaty,” Alexis said. “The bandanna is much better; it’s less weight.”

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I produced and directed two commercials that aired online and nationally on Current TV. I produced and booked national guests for Miami Herald’s leading online show, The World Desk with John Yearwood. Through my production company, I developed online public service announcements including the Halloween Hoodie Campaign, which became a viral sensation and gained global attention. I have also worked for ION TV – the largest broadcast company in the world – where I wrote scripts for radio and TV broadcast.

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