By Melissa Rodriguez
The first time Sonja Wagner lost her hair, she thought she was a badass.
The Florida Southern College junior and cancer survivor cut it all off when she was diagnosed with stage four soft tissue sarcoma in September 2009. Then she freaked out because she didn’t have any hair. Wagner, 21, went into remission a year later and started growing out her dark curls anew.
In August, the Orlando resident received news that the cancer had returned. Once more, she would lose the hair she had waited so long to have again.
“This time it was a lot harder losing my hair because I knew it was going to happen,” Wagner said. “It hurts really bad losing your hair, too. It feels like if you’ve had your hair up for a really long time, and then you take your hair down and move it the opposite way it’s been laying.”
Chemotherapy makes Wagner’s scalp extremely sensitive. Cutting off what hair hadn’t yet fallen out was difficult because it involved touching close to her scalp. Once all of Wagner’s hair follicles die and fall out, her scalp will not be as sensitive and tender to touch. Until the sensitivity decreases, Wagner can’t tolerate shaving her head completely.
After losing her hair the first time, Wagner wore a wig.
“The first wig I got was from the American Cancer Society here in Lakeland,” she said. “They were great and the wig was free. When I was done, I donated the other wigs I bought to them because they had given me my first one.”
Hair loss is one of the most common side effects of cancer treatment, according to the ACS. Other side effects include loss of appetite, mouth sores and high risk of catching illnesses due to low white blood cell counts.
Lakeland hair salon owner Michael Rose is doing his part to make sure that other women like Wagner are able to have wigs while they recover from cancer. That is the reason he started Hair for Hope, a charity cut-a-thon in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness month. Cancer hit the Rose family in his sister and his mother. Helping women undergoing chemotherapy and radiation feel more confident about themselves is his personal challenge.
“I work with beauty queens and beautiful women all the time and for me to work with someone who is ravished with cancer is a challenge,” Rose said. “I work with them to make a difference. I can make them look good.”
Participants who choose to cut off eight or more inches of their hair will be able to donate their ponytails. The ponytails will be sent to the Pantene Beautiful Lengths campaign to be made into wigs. The wigs are distributed to women who are going through chemotherapy through American Cancer Society wig banks, free of charge.
The Lakeland American Cancer Society’s Giving Boutique is free to cancer patients across Polk County and holds scores of items ranging from head covering and wigs to prosthetics for women battling breast cancer.
Salons changing their inventories, or patients who no longer have any use for their wigs have donated all the wigs in the Lakeland Giving Boutique. Only gently used wigs and head coverings are accepted. Some of the head coverings are handmade and donated by cancer supporters. ACS employee Lucy Novak said patients generally spread the word about the free head coverings at the Giving Boutique.
“There is no such thing as an ugly woman. There really isn’t,” Rose said. “My father was a hair dresser and said there is no reason for a woman to go through life and not feel good about themselves. I want them to walk with their heads held high in the air and feeling like a million bucks.”
Hair for Hope collected close to 50 ponytails last year for Pantene Beautiful Lengths and had more than 300 people in attendance. The Pantene Beautiful Lengths campaign is the largest donor of wigs to the ACS’s wig banks. Since its beginning in 2006, Beautiful Lengths has gathered more than 262,828 ponytails that were made into more than 18,000 real-hair wigs.
Michael Rose Hair Designs doesn’t intend for support for Breast Cancer Awareness month to end with the cut-a-thon. The salon will also offer pink hair extensions made of real hair for the month of October.
“I want to help survivors,” Rose said. “I think it’s important because success to me is seeing a woman walk out of my business feeling like a million dollars despite her sickness.”
Wagner has long since accepted her diagnosis. She encourages people to approach her and talk to her about it rather than speculating and wondering about it. Wagner understands that people are naturally curious, but aren’t comfortable with starting a conversation about their curiosities.
“I’m to the point where I’d rather people know about my cancer than wonder and question it,” Wagner said. “That’s my biggest thing, I just want people to know it’s OK and I’m OK with it. If I’m okay with it, everybody else can be OK with it, too.”