Helping the hairless...

GUERNSEY men and women undergoing any cancer treatment which causes hair loss are entitled to two free wigs - that's one better than the scheme offered by the NHS.

One wig is paid for by Health and the other by the Guernsey Society for Cancer Relief.

But the choice has to be made from a brochure provided by UK firm Banbury Postiche, which is kept at Bulstrode House.

Here is a good selection, but if nothing seems to suit and you want another design, then you must find and finance it.

Oncology nurse Sue Freestone and volunteer Jean Gomes - wife of Dr Peter Gomes, the oncologist - have been to the UK to see how hairdressers work with cancer patients in Portsmouth.

They learnt that it was important for people to have two wigs, so that one can be washed while the other is worn. And they heard about special care products.

'When we came back it was accepted without a problem and now all patients can have two wigs and their care products paid for by the Pink Ladies, whatever type of cancer they have and whether they are men or women,' said Sue.

She said there was no right or wrong way to approach hair loss it is up to the individual. Although she is happy to offer what advice she can, she and the other staff involved are not hairdressers.

Only about one in 10 women decides not to bother with a wig. The vast majority of patients who choose the option are female, but there have been three men in the past five years who have taken up the offer. There are samples available to try on at Bulstrode House and Sue and Jean will ensure you have some privacy while you try out different styles.

Sue said: 'When a cancer diagnosis is made and people know they will have treatment, the most common questions are: will I be sick and will I lose my hair?'

But she said it's a common misconception that everyone having the treatment will suffer alopecia - it all depends on the type of drugs used and not all chemotherapy treatments will have this side effect. And it's rarely immediate,

Once the patient knows his or her drug protocol, the staff are able to advise whether hair loss is likely to happen - and when.

It usually starts three to six weeks after treatment begins. But once treatment stops, it grows back, although initially it may be a different texture and some people find that it can even be a different colour.

'Hair follicles are susceptible to change when the chemical environment changes,' said Malcolm Shaw, the lead cancer nurse, who explained that chemotherapy disrupts the growth of cells.

'Chemotherapy interacts with hair follicles and causes thinning or stops it functioning, which results in hair falling out.'

Hair loss is drug-specific and patients can usually be warned well in advance so they can prepare, he said. Not all chemotherapy drugs cause it and sometimes the loss is so small that it is hardly noticeable. With breast cancer and melanoma treatments, hair loss is pretty certain but it's not the case for all treatments for ovarian cancer, for example.

It's not just head hair that goes - eyebrows and even lashes and nasal hair can also be lost.

Experienced beauty therapists can help to restore eyebrows with expertly applied crayon and use eyeliner to help shape the eyes.

Malcolm said having a wig can be vital for the way patients feel about themselves.

'That's because style and colour are individual and can reflect personality. People want to feel normal in an abnormal situation.'

Sue said she had noticed that some patients chose to look their best when they came to Bulstrode House for treatments. 'Some people do make a real effort to look good,' she said.

Other patients get more used to coming to the centre and then the wig comes off as they feel relaxed enough to take a nap in one of the reclining chairs.

'We have moved on over the past 20 years - with better medication for sickness and an understanding that looking good can help boost patients' self-esteem,' said Sue.

pampering proves a confidence boost

Popular treatments include eyelash tints, massages and facials. There is a feel-good factor,' she said.

Breast care nurse specialist Karen Leach wants to set up a Look Good, Feel Better scheme in Guernsey.

She has the support of the charity's head office - but volunteer beauty therapists are needed to work for a few hours every eight weeks without charge.

Karen said letters had been sent to clinics all over the island asking for volunteers to give up a small amount of time to work with cancer patients - but not one had replied.

She said she was now urging qualified therapists to rethink the idea and step forward to help.

'I was in touch with the UK programme managers who could see that we would benefit and were very keen to get something going but they need volunteers. I supplied them with a list, but there were no replies. We did not get one response.'

Women benefit from the scheme as it encourages them to be nice to themselves as they go through treatment.

'All the people I have talked    to    on    other schemes have said they really appreciated it.

The therapists were very sympathetic to their individual problems and they found it really beneficial.'

Karen said that women had various image problems during treatment, with hair loss and sensitive skin.

'Anything that can be done to help them through that has; to be beneficial.'

Karen also hands out pink goodie bags to women who come into hospital for breast cancer operations.

The bag contains a Body Shop selection of vitamin E products as well as extras such as emery boards, boiled sweets and a notepad and pen.

The bags are put together by the Pink Ladies who negotiated a corporate discount on Body Shop products for patients - it is thought that vitamin E can help heal wounds. One woman said it felt nice that someone was thinking of her.

'Having something for themselves which has nothing to do with their operation can help them feel good about themselves,' explained Karen.

 Therapists who want to volunteer or find out more about Look Good, Feel Better should telephone the Pink Ladies on 07781 415131 and leave a message. The charity will train volunteers, who will be asked to give just a few hours of their time on a regular basis. Women who benefit are not just breast cancer patients but people with any form of the disease.

What you get...

  • A range of cosmetics from different product houses.
  • Free advice and a collection of skin-care products and cosmetics to suit complexion colour.
  • Guidance on how to use the products at home.
  • A practical guide on how to cope with hair loss.

(Reproduced courtesy Guernsey Press and Star)

Article dated 18 January 2005

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