Joshua Bright for The New York Times
ONE Friday afternoon early this year, in a limestone town house on the Upper East Side, the topic of conversation was “cancer things, like lymphedema,” said Sherry Kreek, who is undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer.
“We were discussing things that were pretty personal,” she continued. “Other women were listening. Everyone knows someone.”
The conversation wasn’t happening in an oncologist’s waiting room or at a luncheon, but at Sharon Dorram Color at Sally Hershberger, a homey six-chair salon where Ms. Kreek, 62, is the manager.
Three women with microshort hair, strangers before they sat down, had all gone to Ms. Dorram, whose clients include Christie Brinkley and Linda Evangelista, to have their hair dyed for the first time since it had grown back after cancer treatment. They weren’t shy about talking about their new hair and what to do with it, whether they liked their wigs, or much else about the disease they shared.
“This was a more upbeat, happy place to talk than a treatment center,” Ms. Kreek said.
A decade ago, the women who came to see Ms. Dorram, then at John Frieda, after chemo or radiation therapy did so furtively. They removed their wigs in the bathroom or booked early morning appointments so they didn’t have to be in a room with healthy clients.
“You feel vulnerable,” said Ms. Kreek, who met Ms. Dorram at John Frieda, when she returned to blond after her first round of chemotherapy in 2003. “You don’t want to come into a room with ladies with tons of hair, going, ‘I liked it when you did that last time.’ It’s like, ‘Shut up.’ ”
Now, for many women who have lost hair during cancer treatments, dyeing is empowering — and doing it in an open, chatty session makes it all the better. “They’re feeling good again,” said Alexis Antonellis, a colorist at Oscar Blandi who often sees clients who want hair colored after chemotherapy. “They want to go back to who they were. They’re so excited to sit back in the chair and get their life back. It’s really nice. You’ve got to see the smiles.”
Even Ms. Kreek, who wears a stunning blond shoulder-length wig because her hair is not yet long enough to color, has become less guarded. “I used to make them wash my wig on my head,” she said. “Now I just hand it off.”
She’s planning to have Ms. Dorram dye her hair in the next week or so, in time for a vacation to Palm Beach, Fla. “I haven’t been anything but a blonde since I was a kid,” she said. “A lot of that was not natural, but to have this ash-colored hair is not me. I am definitely a blonde. I’m not a gray-haired person, no matter what my body says.”
One might expect cancer patients to be leery of chemical processes, especially those that have been explored for possible carcinogenicity, as hair color has. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization and dedicated to identifying cancer causes, said personal hair dye is “not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans,” based on a lack of evidence from studies in people. On its Web site, the National Cancer Institute writes that while “some studies have indicated that people who began using hair dyes before 1980 have an increased risk of developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the evidence for increased risks of other cancers from hair-dye use is limited and conflicting.”
“Nothing is off the table,” Ms. Antonellis said of the dyes she uses. “But I’m constantly thinking about respecting the integrity of what they have and where they are in treatment.”
Dr. James Speyer, medical director at the Cancer Institute at NYU Langone Medical Center, who is also Ms. Kreek’s oncologist, said he encouraged women to dye their hair if it made them feel better. “It is my understanding that there is no risk,” he said. “It is perfectly fine for women to color their hair. It’s obviously important to them, and there’s no risk of the normal hair dye causing additional cancers.”
And it’s not just a female issue. “How people look is a very important part of their whole approach to the diagnosis of cancer and to the treatment of cancer, and anything we can do to help them work through that period is so important to their overall sense of well-being.”
Amy Katz, 48, of Westport, Conn., whose breast cancer was diagnosed in June 2008, noticed her hair growing in gray after treatment. “You start looking like Jamie Lee Curtis,” she said. The first person she called was her oncologist. “You’re eating perfectly and doing everything right,” she said. “You’re walking on eggshells, so I asked, ‘Do you think I can color my hair?’ ”
“Blondie,” her oncologist told her, “I want you to color your hair any color you want.”
Joshua Bright for The New York Times
John Barrett, who has a namesake salon at Bergdorf Goodman, said hair usually grows back curlier and slightly grayer. “Generally when the hair grows back, it grows back quite differently, but it goes back to its normal texture within a year,” he said. “I tend to recommend that people wait a little while before deciding on a color, but then I usually suggest that they go lighter and try having a few highlights.”
After her oncologist’s O.K., Ms. Katz returned to blond. “People made me feel like I looked like Sharon Stone, whether I did or didn’t,” she said.
The most important thing for her was that she began to look as she did before cancer. “You want to prove that you can climb Mount Kilimanjaro and get over to the other side and get your life back to where it was,” she said. “You want to know that you can do it, and having the same hair color is part of that.”
Some survivors celebrate the newest phase of their lives with a radically different style. Kate King, an actress in her 40s who also had cancer, had her post-chemo hair dyed blonder than it had been. “Before cancer, I looked like the girl next door, like Jennifer Aniston,” she said. “Now I feel like I have Annie Lennox inside me. It empowered me to bring out that aspect of my personality.
“Of all of the changes that did occur, my hair has made the biggest difference,” said Ms. King, from the Upper West Side. “I was so afraid to lose it and frightened by what I saw in the mirror, and then I realized it was such a gift. The last thing I expected was to get a whole new look out of cancer.”
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