In a league of their own for cancer care

By Jonathan Kalmus, April 11, 2012
Sharon Gruber styles for patient Elaine Bennett

Sharon Gruber styles for patient Elaine Bennett

Two years ago, League of Jewish Women volunteers providing confidence-boosting headwear for women being treated at Manchester's Christie cancer hospital ran their service from cardboard and plastic boxes on a table.

Now the Queen's Award-winning Headstart scheme has its own purpose-built "hairdressing" parlour, offering silk scarves, bandanas, synthetic fringes and stylish hats to women patients who are losing their hair. Children with cancer can order bandanas featuring princess or football designs.

"Stock comes to the UK from America, Israel and Portugal," explained volunteer organiser Ruth Wilkins, who persuaded a Bolton hijab wholesaler and a New York stockist of head coverings for Orthodox women to provide goods at wholesale prices. "We also ask friends and family to bring things back for us when they travel abroad."

NHS patients can get a free synthetic wig, but many women prefer head coverings. Headstart receives no funding and clients have to pay for their items.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, Headstart opens five mornings a week and can call on more than 20 volunteers, predominantly league members. Ms Wilkins pointed out that the service could go full-time if 10 more volunteers could give up two afternoons a month.

"You're giving women the ability to face their cancer treatment," stressed volunteer Sharon Gruber.

More than 700 head coverings are offered at the styling parlour, a former stockroom transformed as part of a £35 million revamp at the south Manchester hospital.

Elaine Bennett, who will be undergoing chemotherapy and radiotherapy, praised the service as "smashing. I'm really happy with what I've purchased today. A woman's hair is her crowning glory and you want to feel you can go out and look all right. Getting a head covering makes it easier to cope with."

At times, queues extend beyond the door. Indeed, so popular has Headstart proved that volunteers have given training sessions at Trafford General Hospital, an Oldham hospice and Leeds General Infirmary, which are all looking to start similar services.

Headstart now has a branded logo, designed by a patient it helped. It hopes to soon give patients their headwear in boutique-style bags, offering a more glamorous feel. "We only have the most basic of bags at the moment because we can't afford anything else," Ms Wilkins said.

Last updated: 2:33pm, April 12 2012