'Life is for living, be grateful to be alive," says Helen. She knows what she's talking about. A survivor, she was first diagnosed with cancer after suffering a miscarriage back in 1996. "They thought it was a possible blocked milk duct but when the results came back it was breast cancer." To prevent further cancer spreading Helen's gynaecologist advised her to have her womb and ovaries removed as a precaution. After undergoing the full hysterectomy it was a tough time as she and her husband were desperate to have another baby. "But the operation probably saved my life," she concedes.
Café Java is alive with a buzzy atmosphere when I meet Helen Neiland from Dun Laoghaire. Her vibrant complexion conceals the fact this lady has been through the mill. Helen natters non-stop and with such enthusiasm. It's hard to even imagine how she can be so animated and upbeat after what she's had to go through.
She chats about how she made new friends with other cancer survivors whilst popping into Aidan Fitzgerald's Hair salon to try out wigs. Losing her hair was the biggest milestone following chemotherapy. She recounts: "The chemo is so tough but who basically gives a damn, I'm still alive."
It sort of feels like we're in a therapy session as Helen regales tales of her experience. She's positive, radiant and excited to share and it makes me think about all the trivial stuff I moan about. Strong women like Helen could teach all of us a thing or two.
"When I got cancer first time round," says Helen, "I had to have chemo for six months and the first thing I thought, was, am I going to lose my hair? I was known for my curls, my crowning glory." Helen was on hormone tablets for five years and was cancer free for 10 but in 2006 activity in the breast bone was detected and she had to undergo radiation treatment. In 2010 the cancer had spread to her liver. "You get into survival mode. It wasn't until day 17 of chemo that my hair started falling out last time round. I remember counting down the days and on day 19 it was harder than ever eating breakfast in a white fleece and seeing lumps of my curls falling down my shoulders."
Helen Neiland five years ago.
When Helen first lost her locks, she realised quickly there were no wigs out there for her. Her choice was limited. Go for an African weave or a Diana Ross mannequin throw back to the 80s. "Delightful," she laughs. Losing the hair on her head was hellish enough but what was even worse was losing her eyebrows and her eyelashes: "People didn't recognise me anymore. If I ran into a petrol station to grab milk, people would give you that sympathetic look. I hated that."
It was tough through the years for Helen. Losing her hair was like losing her most prized possession. She felt her identity was stolen. She revealed to me the way she dealt with it was like going through many different personality changes. "I felt like Madonna. I had to reinvent myself every time I got a new wig. I even had to change my wardrobe," she laughs. "All of my wigs had names, there was Stacie, Tova and Alison, one remains nameless but my friends named her Rihanna. She was the one with the long silky side fringe. My most recent wig was named Hana."
Over the years despite her reinvention, Helen hated the way people didn't recognise her anymore. Her reincarnation with her alter egos kept her occupied and as a former fashion designer she didn't mind experimenting but longed for a look that was truly in keeping with her original locks.
Helen Neiland in April 2012 with cropped hair and wearing one of her wigs – she loved the freedom they gave her with her look. Photo: Ronan Lang
Two years ago she was coming out of her treatment and she bumped into hair stylist Aidan Fitzgerald in the lift. She had modelled for Aidan going back years and hadn't realised he had moved into the wig business. When he told her what he was doing at the hospital, she threw her arms around him and said, "Thank you, you can get me my curls back". He informed her he could get her the appropriate wig in 48 hours and he didn't disappoint.
"Hairstyle is lifestyle," says Aidan. He's been shaping and styling personalised wigs for cancer and alopecia patients for over three years now. He linked up with internationally renowned, London celebrity hair stylist Trevor Sorbie who asked Aidan along with 300 other top stylists in the UK and Ireland to join his 'My New Hair' concept to provide a more professional, caring and affordable service during this traumatic time.
"More and more ladies are coming in mainly through word of mouth. Many of my clients for 'My New Hair' have told me they never thought they'd be happy with their look as they'd often be sitting in the oncology ward and seeing these badly shaped wigs looking like mullets feeling like they'd never look normal again. But now with the many advances and natural skin toned scalps nobody will even know you're wearing a wig unless you want them to know. My advice is, just tell people you've been to a new hairdresser, if you don't want anyone knowing that is. There's now a fantastic range of styles and colours to choose from and with low maintenance. When you get a customised wig you can go home, hang it on your shower rail after you wash it and it's good to go."
We all know what it's like to treat your hair dresser like your personal counsellor, so at a time when your body and your hair are in constant flux, the hair stylist probably does feel like a therapist during this time of change.
"Yes as a hair stylist, I feel like a counsellor," says Aidan. "But 'My New Hair' is on a whole other level. One particular lady could not accept that a hair piece could ever be as good as her old hair. It was like a fight that she could not give up. She told me she would never feel normal again. After receiving chemo she came back to the salon with her daughter. I tweaked the piece and it was a heart breaking moment. She cried, her daughter cried and they both hugged me as she had finally accepted that this was her new hair and she was given a new lease of life. But this was her journey. It was a milestone and she surpassed it."
Health & Living