breast cancer awareness month: a survivor's story about how she kept her hair during her second diagnosis
Here at amika, doing good is especially important to us. Our 2 year partnership with HairToStay is something we are incredibly proud of and honored to bring awareness to. As a haircare brand, we know how important hair can be to someone’s identity and sense of self, no matter their age, sex, race, or gender identity.
As an ode to Breast Cancer Awareness month, we wanted to lift the voice and experience of someone who has been personally affected by HairToStay’s mission.
We spoke to Alli Jo Houck, a survivor of breast cancer, who shared her amazing story with us, and we can’t wait to share it with all of you, so keep reading!
q: Tell us a little bit about your story.
a: When I am asked to share my story, I always go back to a vacation to Lake Tahoe for Memorial Day weekend. I felt awesome while we hiked and explored the lake andlife was going really well. Our daughter had just turned one, and then I felt a lump that seemed to be getting bigger. I was weaning my daughter from breastfeeding during the trip and believed my doctor that it was likely a clogged milk duct. It couldn’t possibly be cancer, I felt SO good and I was so young!
Months later, my lump hadn’t gone away and I persisted to see another doctor and asked for an ultrasound. What happened next was a blur- ultrasounds, mammograms, biopsies, fear, waiting, and finally a phone call where a radiologist told me through tears that it was indeed breast cancer. I was 33 years old with a one-year old daughter, a small business, and my husband had just had a major career shift. To say it turned our world upside down would be an understatement.
The next year held surgeries, 16 rounds of chemotherapy, 33 radiation treatments, and hundreds of doctor appointments. When it came time to lose my hair, my husband shaved it in our dining room surrounded by my closest girlfriends on a Saturday morning. It was emotional and I felt like the “cancer patient” label was immediately stamped on my appearance. I heard it said before that when you lose your hair, “cancer enters the room before you do”. That was absolutely my experience. The daily furrowed brows of sympathy, the stares and the questions whispered from children- it added to the already deep emotions I was feeling.
We got through the battle of breast cancer as a family and I worked hard to heal my body. About one year after finishing radiation treatments, I again felt a lump and my heart sank. I thought cancer was behind me and it was devastating. I was starting to feel strong again and was training for a half marathon. My hair had grown out to a fun length- channeling Meg Ryan in “You’ve Got Mail”. But, I had learned so much in my first-time fighting cancer. I had gone to hard places and my soul was strong. I had learned to advocate for myself. I learned to seek the very best specialists.
q:What is your relationship with your hair?
a: Before breast cancer was a part of my life, I was always complimented for my long hair. In fact, I worked in the salon industry throughout college both in retail and later managing a thriving salon. My hair was down to the middle of my back and I loved styling it. I think a major change in your appearance should be a decision you should make, not one that is made for you. I love that HairToStay allows the option to keep your hair!
q:How did you find out about scalp cooling?
a: I had learned about cold-capping in my stylist’s chair when my salon was doing an October fundraiser for HairToStay. When I got the diagnosis of a recurrence, I immediately thought of the fundraiser and reached out to my salon to see if I could keep my hair, if possible. I knew more this time around and I felt more in the driver’s seat. With a quick phone call my salon connected me to HairToStay who helped to coordinate an overnight shipment of a Paxman cold cap in time for my first chemotherapy treatment days later.
q:What was your experience like?
a: Cold-capping was a time commitment, but well worth it! After dampening my hair, I’d place it on my head for 30 minutes before my chemotherapy infusion. Ice cold water ran throughout the silicone cap, which would constrict my blood vessels in my scalp, keeping the chemotherapy in my blood from getting to my scalp. After a couple minutes of discomfort that felt like a brain freeze, my scalp would become numb. I would keep the cap on throughout the hour-long infusion and for another 90 minutes after the chemo ended to ensure the best results. And the results were phenomenal! I kept all my hair on my head! My eyelashes and eyebrows fell out, but some make-up fixed that and they grew back quickly after I completed treatments.
I have lost my hair and I’ve had the incredible blessing of being able to keep it. I have the unique perspective of experiencing both and I far prefer keeping my hair. I was able to be discreet about my health journey when I wanted to be. My then 3-year-old daughter who adored Rapunzel didn’t have to process a bald mother. My small business is a swim school so I work with mostly 2-5 year old's. It was so much easier to not have conversations around cancer and hair loss during their most inquisitive years. At one point during my treatments, I attended my little sister’s college graduation party and it felt so freeing to have conversations with her friends that had no idea that I was battling cancer. The day was about my sister and I loved every second of celebrating her.
Getting a cancer recurrence diagnosis is the most overwhelmed I have ever been. Every area of my life was affected and in the moment my hair seemed like a very small thing. I almost didn’t make the call to my salon because I thought of all the other things I needed to coordinate. I am so glad my stylist Andrea was passionate about HairToStay and their mission and that she shared it with me! I am also so glad that I took a risk and made the call. Being chosen for a scholarship was a humbling experience and I plan to pay it forward to other women that get diagnosed with this awful disease- until we find a cure and we have no need for cold caps. Until that day, I want women to know they have an option when it comes to keeping their hair!
q:Do you have any advice for those recently diagnosed?
a: My advice for those recently diagnosed is to trust those around you with the raw emotions, dig into your faith, contend for a long healthy life, and don’t be afraid to ask for exactly what you need. It seems like this is going to be a physical battle and it will be, but the greater battle is mental. This devastating news is also the opportunity for an upgrade- an upgrade in your relationships, your soul and your approach to life... if you let it.
To show your support for HairToStay, donate directly at checkout when you purchase via loveamika.com, visit their site, or purchase our newest perk up dry shampoo. Two dollars of every limited edition can sold will go straight to HairToStay.