Karen Graham checks in with her oncologist every year to make sure the breast cancer she’s already battled twice hasn’t returned.
“And here I come usually every five weeks,” she says.
“Here” is the Image Recovery Center at the Ann B. Barshinger Cancer Institute of Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health. It’s the place down the hall from where Graham received radiation and chemotherapy treatments. It’s the place where she first went to get a new breast prosthesis. And it’s the place where she found a stylist to trust with her hair when it grew back.
Karen has been cancer-free for six years, yet she still returns to the salon in the cancer center.
“I’ve been here ever since,” says Graham, of Manheim. “They’re very warm and friendly, and they do a professional job at the same time.”
Nearly 16 million Americans have battled cancer, the American Cancer Society reports. That includes more than 3 million women with breast cancer, like Graham. They treat this disease with surgery, hormone therapy, chemotherapy, radiation, immunotherapy and more. A place like the Image Recovery Center doesn’t have medical treatments, yet it can be a vital part of rehab.
Our hair is a big part of who we are, says Lindy Loercher, a clinical cosmetologist at the center.
“Clients and patients that come in and say, ‘I didn’t even care about my hair before,’ ” she says, “’now all of a sudden I can’t believe how much it matters to me.’ ”
The Image Recovery Center is a salon that offers haircuts for men and women, highlights, manicures and massages. Staff members also offer patients a free head shave when hair starts to fall out because of treatment. They give free haircuts when hair starts to grow back. And in between they offer wig fitting and styling.
There’s also a certified mastectomy fitter, Diane Bortner, who will help women find the right breast prostheses.
A few years ago, these services were available for cancer patients, but they were scattered in different offices throughout the county, says Rebecca MacCarron, manager of oncology, clinical support at the institute. When the cancer center opened in 2013, all of these services came together in one salon. The image center is open to the public, even for cancer patients from other institutions and patients who have finished their treatments.
The salon is unique for Lancaster County's cancer centers however UPMC's Plastic & Aesthetic Surgical Associates in Lititz offers skin care options tailored for cancer patients.
Aside from the wig services and head shaving, the image center is different from a typical salon.
The stylists are clinical cosmetologists who learn about cancer and the extra steps needed to prevent infection, which is especially important for patients undergoing treatments that tax immune systems.
For manicures and pedicures, the equipment is sanitized at a higher level and some items, like nail files, are thrown away, Loercher says.
“So that during chemo, they can come in and feel safe,” she says.
Loercher and her fellow clinical cosmetologist, Carol Kreider, can suggest shampoo and treatments that stimulate hair growth. There are also products for thinning eyelashes and brows, and organic hair color. They also have nail polish with fewer toxic ingredients.
In a room full of wigs, Loercher points out a popular style called Shaded Praline. It has medium golden blond hair with platinum highlights and brown roots.
They also have “toppers” or hair pieces for patients who have had permanent hair loss from scalp surgery.
Loercher recalls finding a topper for one client to cover an area where no hair grew after surgery.
After wearing a scarf day after day, the woman loved having another option, Loercher says.
Why do hair, skin and nails matter, especially in the middle of treating a deadly disease?
“When you’re going through changes because of the therapies you are given for a disease that can kill you, that’s very dehumanizing,” McCarron says. “And therefore, hair, how you feel about yourself and aesthetics in general helps you feel like you again.”