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Lauren Ford was just 22 when she was diagnosed with cancer. She wants others to benefit from her experience of coping with the disease, and as a hairdresser she has a unique opportunity to make a difference. She talks to Roz Whistance.

It’s hard enough – oh so very hard – to be told you’ve got cancer. But somehow it seems all the more unfair, all the more of a cheap trick, if you are just starting out in life. When Lauren Ford, an attractive 23-year-old hairdresser, and mother of a little boy, was diagnosed with a rare form of the disease she thought the end was in sight. This is her story: she has turned devastation into inspiration, and is determined to help others where no help was forthcoming for herself.

“I loved my hair,” says Lauren. “I never had more than a centimetre cut off.” She is a sparky bright-eyed girl, looking fit and well, and her hair today is crafted in a funky spiked style. “Three weeks after I started chemotherapy I was fiddling with my hair and five strands just came out in my hands. The more I pulled, the more it came out. I was left with two patches of hair on my head.”

Now some might say ‘What’s all this about hair? She’s recovering from cancer, she’s alive, that’s the main thing.’ And indeed it is. But, as they say about international conflict, you not only have to win the war, you have to win the peace. In order to regain the person she once was, Lauren had to get back to looking normal – and that had to be a different normal. It is the importance of surviving the after effects of treatment that she wants to pass on to others.

“I didn’t tell anyone I was ill,” she says, “because I didn’t want them to think I was going to die.” That was precisely what she thought when she was told she had a tumour. “I asked: does that mean I’ve got cancer? The consultant said yes, but the odds were in my favour. As I cried my eyes out I thought: how can he compare my life to ‘odds’.”

Two years ago Lauren had discovered a lump in her stomach which was diagnosed as endometriosis. The lump grew – she looked six months pregnant – until her doctor said they should get it out to have a look. It turned out to be a female form of testicular cancer called dysgerminoma – an extremely rare condition but curable without the need for chemotherapy if caught early.

But too much time had passed between her discovery of the lump and its correct diagnosis. Lauren’s ovary and fallopian tube had to be removed, and she was put on a punishing course of chemotherapy.

From February to May she spent every Wednesday at Southampton General hospital, and every three weeks she had to spend three days there. “Chemotherapy causes your body to swell up. I went for treatment in my jeans and by the time I came out I’d be bursting out of them, waddling up the road.” This is one of many facts about cancer treatment which she feels isn’t widely-enough known. She believes the more information you have the better you can mentally prepare yourself.

There was a lot to deal with. “In the ward I was surrounded by old people who might not be going to get better, and I’m thinking ‘I’m not going to get better either.’” She would have loved to have been with other young people – even on unisex wards – rather than feel as isolated as she did. “I never had anyone to talk to.”

She hated not having the energy to play with her little boy, and says she could see he was confused by the change in her. However, because he was so young at the time he has forgotten that period.

Lauren wasn’t offered a MacMillan nurse, and it was her mother who lovingly and devotedly cared for her. “My mum was amazing,” says Lauren, her eyes welling up. “She took me and my little boy in – she was so strong! She’d only just lost her own mum to cancer so it was hard for her to watch me go through it.” She adds: “It would have been good to have someone else to talk to, because you worry about worrying your family.”

Lauren doesn’t gripe or moan. She is amazingly stoic about everything that has happened to her. But there are many aspects of her illness and recovery that she believes should have been dealt with in a better way, such as the provision of information and counselling. Perhaps inevitably, given how rare her particular form of the condition she had, there was nobody on the Island who could give her information, and it wasn’t until half way through her treatment that she received a leaflet about it.

Since she couldn’t work she had no money for rent. Thankfully she did learn about a charity which gives grants to young people in her situation, Clic Sergeant, which helped her financially.

Hair story

The most serious gap in the aftercare she received was to do with her hair. “I’m a hairdresser – and a woman – so maybe I felt it more,” she says. “I didn’t know you lose all your body hair – even the fluff on my arms and on my face. No-one talked to me about what to expect, so when my hair came out in handfuls I was devastated. I had to get my mum to shave the last two patches on my head, which you need to do because otherwise the wig doesn’t stick.”

It is Lauren’s experience with wigs which has led to her initiative to set up the clinic to help people through the process of choosing and fitting a wig, and having it shaped. “I went round the shops with my mum looking for a wig,” says Lauren, “but it was hopeless – there was nowhere private for cancer patients to try them on. One lady in Southampton gave me a bandana with a stick on fringe!” In the end she found a wig on the internet and when it arrived through the post she felt it was her life in a plastic bag, because she wouldn’t have left the house without it.

It was not, however, the lifesaver she would have chosen. “I put it on, and it just looked hideous. You can’t wash them with ordinary shampoo because they’re not real hair, you can’t blow dry it – they’re like woolly hats on your head. But it was a good job I was a hairdresser because I actually cut it myself – I put it on my sister’s head to shape it round the face – and I wore a headband so you couldn’t see the top of my wig, where it was obviously woven.”

So successful was she that even at the hospital people said “so you haven’t started to lose your hair yet.” But what hit her hard was the initial reaction of her little boy. He didn’t like to see her without hair, and ran away. However, after two weeks he got used to removable hair and used to tell her to ‘put her hat on’.

“One day my sister and I were having lunch in a pub garden – and my little boy pulled my wig off! I was horrified and pulled it back on – but then we had a good laugh. You’ve really got to laugh!”

You can almost feel Lauren’s renewed zest for life, fuelled by her determination that her experience must make a difference for others. “I feel let down. I want to make people aware that more help is needed. Just because you’re young doesn’t mean you can’t have cancer. It’s really important to check yourself, and if you find a lump,  don’t just accept the doctor’s first diagnosis, keep pushing and pushing for a second opinion. If I hadn’t I probably wouldn’t be here now.”

Lauren’s clinic

Once she had cut and shaped her wigs, and learnt how best to look after them, she felt much happier. Having a positive attitude, she stresses, is absolutely vital. “Even if you’re feeling really rubbish it’s important to get up, have a shower and do your hair and makeup – you feel better.” Her clinic will aim to do just that for people. “I just thought it would be nice if there was somewhere you could go where there was someone to help you through every stage after being diagnosed with cancer, from when you’re told you’ll lose your hair. As I’d been through it myself it would be more personal to them – I just wanted to help people, really give something back.”

Genevieve Sanders, the proprietor of Level Hair and Beauty, has given over a room which will be a clinic where people can come and talk to Lauren, who will explain what will happen when they start to lose their hair, and give advice – like cutting long hair short so it’s less of a shock when it does go. “I will shave their head if they can’t do it themselves,” she adds, “then cut and shape their wig to make it their own.”

After chemotherapy – she pointedly never says ‘chemo’, and you wonder if, as the writer Alan Bennett has remarked about his own cancer treatment, she has never felt on sufficiently friendly terms with the process to give it a pet name – the new hair is delicate but does get stronger. She will also be a listening ear for any unexpected horrors, such as when her eyebrows fell out. “I’d finished my chemotherapy in May and my eyebrows were the only bit of hair I had. Then just when I started to feel better two weeks after the end of the treatment, they fell out! That was really bad because eyebrows make a person.” Fortunately it was just another temporary stage in the process and they soon grew back.

As well as receiving advice in total privacy, there will be access to therapies such as hand or foot massages from Katie, the salon beautician, without having to leave the room. “I want to help make a real rubbish time for people a little bit better.”

While the final touches were being made to the new clinic, Lauren was about to attend a course with acclaimed hair stylist Trevor Sorbie, who runs an organisation called My New Hair. He teaches wig cutting and shaping, and his organisation also helps cancer and alopecia sufferers who cannot afford to buy wigs. On his website, www.mynewhair.org he has sent out a call for his peers in the industry to join him in offering their services in helping people with the devastation of hair loss. Lauren is happy to take up that call.

For more information about Lauren’s clinic, and for price quotations, contact Level Hair and Beauty, Ryde. Tel 812244. Email rydeleisure@btconnect.com.