'You can hide your scars and conceal your pain, but you can't hide how you see yourself'
Losing your hair to cancer can destroy your self esteem but the right wig can work wonders, Helen Neiland tells Siobhan O'Connor
'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.
"12 years ago a lady would have had to spend €1200 on a wig, these days you can get a fantastic piece for €650. The reason I decided to get involved with 'My New Hair' was due to the amount of ladies calling into the salon asking me to fix the wigs they'd bought online which weren't styled properly. I was hearing comments like, my husband never recognised me. These ladies felt they had lost their identity and they were really upset because they said they couldn't look normal without their hair. The difference in getting a customised fashionable wig that's personalised to suit your style is that you feel more like you did before you lost your hair and we can choose a piece that can recreate how you looked at your best."
Running his hair salon in Blackrock for over 40 years has given Aidan an insight into just how important it is for women to be happy with their hairstyle. But he never imagined just how many women would be flocking to the salon in desperate need of a hair piece following their illness.
"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."
Helen Neiland wearing one of her wigs – she loved the freedom they gave her with her look. Photo: Ronan Lang
For many women diagnosed with cancer they aren't aware of the choice they have or the funding that is available to them to buy a decent hair piece. If you have health insurance or a medical card you are entitled to obtain a grant to help you on your journey.
Although losing her hair was traumatic, Helen doesn't want to scare people going through a similar experience. It's clear the loss of her hair was like losing herself. Just imagine losing your locks and when your hair starts growing back fuzzy, it's so uncomfortable, you're there with your mascara brushes trying to fill in bits and blend bits in. Avoiding anything reflective that reminds you of what's happening, not looking at old photos, a constant reminder of what you once looked like. Helen tells me, "that thing of waking up in the morning, taking a shower and finding hair in the plugholes and in your mouth, it's horrific. You can hide your scars or conceal the pain, but you can't hide how you see yourself".
Helen remembers sitting in the chair at Aidan's salon and him ordering her to look away. "He told me to close my eyes. I wasn't allowed to see myself until my wig was in place. But then there's the, eureka moment when you look in the mirror and you just want to cry because you're back. I just kept saying 'oh my god, oh my god'. You see I'd forgotten what I looked like before the cancer. When I saw myself I cried and said to Aidan, I'm calling her 'Hana'. 'My New Hair' gave Helen her confidence back. "I felt like me again. Just after I got 'Hana' I was walking through Superquinn and bumped into an old friend. I knew I'd found the perfect wig as my friend who did not know I had cancer said, God Helen is it you? I haven't seen you in so long, you haven't changed a bit."
As Helen recalls the pain of losing her locks it occurs to mind how daunting it all is and how brave one must be to go through this journey. Despite all she's faced and battled, she loves life, her passion for living is palpable.
At a susceptible time like this it's imperative that you seek the right advice when attempting to restore your crowning glory.
Finding the right wig seems to have helped her on her journey, "Aidan offers a fantastic service", says Helen. "When you walk into the salon, you feel vulnerable but his team put you at ease straight away, you enter a private room with no prying eyes. It's a one to one consultation. It's a matter of trying the wigs on.
"There's so much choice, do you go for synthetic hair, or real, what colour, shape and style. Finding the right wig changed my life because my confidence was at an all time low. When you're diagnosed with cancer it's such a hard journey and if you don't look well you feel 100pc worse."
So what should you look for in a wig? Helen advises, "When you're on chemo, your complexion changes, your body is being poisoned so I would recommend going down a shade or two. Bring a photo of yourself from before.
"Also it's important to bring a close relative or good friend with you. You're so fragile and you need support. You also need someone to tell you the truth. If the wig doesn't suit you, you need an honest answer. My best friend, Ingrid, Hamilton-Turley has been my rock through all this. She's kept me going, kept me positive, lifted me up when I was down, a shoulder to cry on. She always knows when I'm not well, even when I don't know it myself, she becomes my guardian angel and that's a true sign of friendship".
Positivity is what helped Helen through this life-changing illness. Both she and her friends who've been on this journey conceded that there is incredible treatment out there.
Helen Neiland. Photo by Ronan Lang
The feeling is there are a lot of people who reject treatment, for fear of the side effects, but there is life at the end of the tunnel even though you're forced to adapt your life during your treatment.
A sense of humour also helps. Helen remembers, in Tesco, one day a stranger came up to her and said, "I'm terribly sorry I have to ask you. Where did you get your hair done, I love it?". Giddily Helen tells me she fibbed, "I got the cut and colour at Aidan Fitzgerald's Blackrock".
Back in the day it was not uncommon for a salon to have a meagre selection of wigs to choose from but times are changing. The shift is not just in range it's also in psychology.
Stylists are now more equipped with the information and the products to make the patients' journey more uplifting. Your new hair is here, but the old you is here to stay and as you recover from your illness your self-esteem can too.
The effects of cancer have traditionally been viewed clinically. But there is a vital need to restore the patient's image confidence too and this is what these new wigs are doing for ladies who feel dejected when their precious locks are stolen from them.
Helen says, "Thankfully things are becoming more beauty orientated. For pain there's always been a tablet, for an itch there's a cream, so now with these new hair pieces, if you lose your hair you don't have to lose your self-worth."
As we leave the café she laughs and looks at me saying, "I can tell if it's a good wig or a bad one, by the way". Helen now has a secondary breast cancer, which is treatable and controllable. This is why she'll be on treatment for the rest of her life, which means she could lose her hair again, depending on the drug.
Thankfully for now she keeps her wigs, "Hana, Stacie, Tova, Alison and Rihanna", under her bed and she hopes her hair won't fall out again, but she'll never be certain of what the future holds or where her journey will take her. Helen's amazing lust for life leaves a tear in my eye and I'll never complain about bad hair days again for as long as I live.
- My New Hair at Aidan Fitzgerald Blackrock.
For general enquires and for personal wig styling bookings Tel (01) 2886479 / (01) 2831124 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- 1-10 women in Ireland contract Breast cancer. There are 2400 new cases diagnosed annually. www.Breastcancerireland.com
(Health and Living)
Health & Living