Volunteers help cancer sufferers put fashion first

By Jonathan Kalmus, September 24, 2009
Headstart volunteer Judith Epstein explains the finer points of wearing a scarf to cancer patient Sue Woodcock

Headstart volunteer Judith Epstein explains the finer points of wearing a scarf to cancer patient Sue Woodcock

Looking in a mirror, Sue Woodcock said: “Now I look like a person with cancer.” The 53-year-old is sporting a scarf on hair which will inevitably fall out during cancer treatments at Manchester’s Christie hospital.

“OK,” said her Headstart attendant sensitively. “How about this?”

An uplifting smile sweeps Mrs Woodcock’s face as a trendy kind of elongated Alice-band, famously worn by 1970s biker girls, is placed on her head instead. “And if we put a false fringe at the front, no-one would ever notice anything’s different,” said Judith Epstein, who began volunteering for Headstart 16 years ago.

The voluntary service sells fashionable headdresses at nominal prices to help women cope with losing their hair during cancer treatments. Two weeks ago it received a Queen’s award, the first for any of Christie’s 30 voluntary services.

The service started 18 years ago when five volunteers from the League of Jewish Women realised some patients find the NHS-funded wig uncomfortable. Now with over 20 volunteers, it sells 500 headpieces a year and has been replicated in other hospitals.

If we can give women confidence it is such a lift

Zena Berlyne, a founding volunteer, said the service had small beginnings. “We started going around wards with scarves in a supermarket basket. It expanded quickly. People don’t realise the trauma for a woman to know she is going to lose her hair. If we can give them confidence to look in the mirror and look fantastic it’s such a lift.”

Inspiration for new styles comes from all walks of life. An Orthodox Jewish owner of a New York boutique recently agreed to sell pre-tied bandanas at the wholesale price and pay for half the shipping.

“We’re always on alert,” said Mrs Epstein. “I stopped a lady in Tesco who was wearing a scarf. She looked gorgeous. She told me where she had bought it. I’ve had hair clips donated from a market trader in Ramsbottom.”

Christie’s voluntary services manager Alexis Dinsmore said Headstart will soon have a dedicated boutique-style room in the hospital’s new eight-storey building. “It’s the busiest volunteer department apart from the tea bar. Our chief executive couldn’t praise Headstart enough.”

Last updated: 2:12pm, September 24 2009