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‘Salon Strong’ empowers stylists

Sarah Bilofsky, left, holds up one of the "pink bags" that Amy Karas, right, created. (The Leader-Herald/Opal Jessica Bogdan)

JOHNSTOWN — Empowerment through education was a message that rang out across the Salon Strong event Monday evening at the Johnstown Holiday Inn.

The event was for hairstylists wanting to learn about hair care for clients diagnosed with cancer, both before and during treatment, and different options someone may have while they are going through the process of chemotherapy or radiation. New York Oncology Hematology (NYOH) and Nathan Littauer Hospital sponsored the free event.

“Taking charge leads to feeling empowered,” highlighted guest speaker of the evening, Dr. Arsyl De Jesus, a radiation oncologist at NYOH in Amsterdam.  “That’s why hairstylists are so important, because hair loss is very prominent in cancer patients and hair is a very important aspect of self image.”

The evening started off with guest speaker Amy Karas, a breast cancer survivor and patient of De Jesus, sharing her story. Karas said the pain she felt when she started losing her hair was just as bad as the day she received her cancer diagnosis. However, rather than letting the hair loss take control over her life and her self image, she took control over it. The day she first started losing her hair, Karas said she made a deal with her hairstylist that they would meet up, shave her head and have a wig ready.

“I didn’t have a tear when we shaved it because it was a good thing. I took charge and didn’t let it take charge of me,” Karas said. “[Stylists] are the most important person who can deal with clients and keep them positive. Try to take charge and take care of the hair before the hair takes care of them. And just be there for them.”

Stylist Cindy Walek of Envision in Clifton Park attended the event and said there should be more like it. She has been in the business for more than 20 years and realized a lot of her clients have received a cancer diagnosis.

“This is education, first and foremost,” Walek said. “I just wanted to be educated on where to send people or what products we can use.”

De Jesus told stylists tips and tricks they can use and how to prepare their clients for the hair loss. As to why women and men see temporary hair loss after being diagnosed with cancer, De Jesus said it’s mostly when the patient undergoes chemotherapy. She explained chemotherapy attacks rapidly dividing cells. While that includes the bad cancer cells, other cells that are rapidly diving are hair shafts and nails, resulting in the loss of hair. De Jesus said patients start losing hair typically in their second month of chemotherapy treatment.

“You’re not just taking care of the just the cancer itself, but the cancer in the person,” De Jesus said. “So therefore you’re taking care of the person, and the family the person is in. I think that if we just focus on the cancer and ignore what makes that person a person, we have not taken care of them.”

De Jesus said options, such as different treatments to prevent the loss of hair are out there. She listed a cold cap therapy, a method in which the cap minimizes blood flow to the hair follicle. Studies on the treatment are still new, but De Jesus said the goal is to minimize the amount of chemotherapy sent to the scalp. However, while less chemotherapy is sent to the hair follicle, cancer may spread there as well.

Another recommendation from De Jesus was to take supplements such as biotin and vitamin D, which promotes healthy hair and nail growth.

“Think of your hair as baby hair and what would you do if it was your infants hair,” De Jesus said.

She said to use baby shampoo, or shampoo with the least amount of chemicals, and to use a wide tooth comb.  However, one of the most popular methods seen during hair loss is using a wig. De Jesus said patients should work closely with their stylist to select wigs that will not be itchy or irritate the scalp.

Karas recommended to have fun with the wig selection, telling the audience she had 12 different wigs ranging from short hair to long, from straight to curly.

“When I was diagnosed, I decided that if I had to have this horrible thing, I was going to have fun with it because I would have to go through it anyways,” Karas said.

A year after her treatment ended, Karas wanted to give back and help out other patients going through the same thing, so she created a “Pink Bag.” The project is aimed to help patients going through breast cancer, and Karas and her staff worked together to create a bag filled with lotion, teas, special soap, adult coloring books and chocolate. They try to fill and distribute 30 of the bags each month.

“It’s a great project and has helped many women,” Karas said.

As to more events like this, Walek said there needs to be more.

“I really think we need education in all aspects,” Walek said. “We are just so in-tune with people. They sit in our chair and from the second they are in our chair, it’s a therapy session for them. We are just very close with our clients.”

Opal Jessica Bogdan covers rural Fulton County and can be reached at obogdan@leaderherald.com.

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