Norwich hairdresser helps cancer sufferers feel good again

A trip to the hairdressers is no longer just about a cut and blow dry, it's about feeling empowered to get back your identity if you are battling with cancer or hair loss. Emma Harrowing talks to the Norwich hairdresser who is helping men and women fight back.

It's not the first thing that springs to mind when you are told you have cancer, but hair loss remains a likely side effect for many cancer survivors.

With statistics showing that one in three of us will suffer from cancer at some stage of our lives and new research and techniques leading to a higher survival rate, rebuilding self-esteem after losing your hair during chemotherapy is gradually becoming an important part of follow-up treatment.

Sue Helps from Norwich understands the distress hair loss can have after she lost her hair when being treated for breast cancer in 2008.

'I take pride in my appearance and so when my hair started to fall out in chunks after having just two sessions of chemo it was soul destroying,' said 45-year-old Sue. 'Being a hairdresser made my hair loss worse as I was used to showing people how their hair can form part of their identity. I felt as if losing my hair was the end of the world.'

Sue had already seen her mum lose her hair in her fight against breast cancer. Her mum sadly lost her battle with cancer in 2001.

'Seeing mum going through breast cancer and then experiencing cancer myself was tough,' said Sue. 'I have survived, which makes me believe that I must do something to help others going through the same traumatic experience.'

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Sue was lucky to survive having had an aggressive form of breast cancer that resulted in her having a mastectomy, reconstruction surgery, implant surgery and six months of chemotherapy. She still had to have injections every 11 weeks to sustain the level of oestrogen in her body.

'All the way through my treatment taking care of my appearance helped me find the strength I needed to face the world,' said Sue. 'It sounds vain, but putting on a bit of makeup and making sure that I looked ok gave me back my confidence.'

It is this confidence that Sue wants to instil in other people experiencing hair loss. Having worked as a hairdresser since she was 15 years old Sue has experience of making people look and feel better about themselves. It is this knowledge and skill that has led her to a new venture.

'When I was going through my treatment losing my hair was one of the most traumatic experiences I have ever been through,' said Sue. 'I found that although the NHS could put you in touch with charities such as the Big C who can provide you with support and a wig, there wasn't a service that could cut your wig into the latest hair trend or to cut it into a style that suits you. The whole issue of hair loss and regrowth is very poorly understood. Then I discovered the charity My New Hair run by celebrity hairdresser Trevor Sorbie and I knew what I could do to help others.'

My New Hair is a charity that provides training for hairdressers to help them understand the unique needs of cancer survivors and their hair at what is a difficult time. The charity provides advice on wig styling and hair loss and regrowth.

'I have signed up to take the course so that I can offer this service in my salon this summer,' said Sue. 'Clients will be able to have a personal one-to-one appointment in a private room with soothing music and complementary herbal teas and coffee, while they get advice from someone who has experienced cancer and hair loss on how to give their hair or wig a makeover.'

Sue has won the support of suppliers Matrix and Barkers Wholesalers of Norwich, and the hairdressing department at City College Norwich – all are sponsoring her training in Trevor Sorbie's academy in London.

Says Sue: 'I've recently been invited to the Hairdressing Council's annual afternoon tea party at the House of Commons in London where I will get to meet all the top celebrity hairdressers including Trevor Sorbie. This is quite an honour as only a few hairdressers are invited.

'My experience with cancer has really made a difference to my career. Showing people that looking better can help you feel better is, in my experience, the best remedy to face up to the challenge of cancer.'

For more information about the charity My New Hair click on the link at the top of the right hand column.

Sue can be contacted at her salon FresHair on 01603 621854.