Looking into a mirror at Diana's Beauty Salon in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, Sarah Wangui stares at herself, deep in thought. She has completely lost her hair due to cancer treatment. Sarah touches her head where her hair should be and smiles a closed mouth smile.
Perhaps she was smiling because she is among the cancer survivors whose paths have crossed with that of Diana Aketch, a beautician who is offering free wigs to boost the self-esteem of people who have undergone medically-induced hair loss due to chemotherapy. "My hair started falling out on the first day after my first chemotherapy session. I was diagnosed with stage-three cancer and lost one of my breasts to it," Sarah recalls.
"I woke up on that day and found my hair all over my pillow; I have never been that scared. I screamed and the neighbors came rushing in to assist me; that is when they knew that I was undergoing cancer treatment." From that day onward, Sarah tells Anadolu Agency, she was forced to fight two battles.
One was against cancer, "and the other was stigmatization; no one wanted to associate with me. They thought I had AIDS or something, all because of the mark on my head: no hair. I would enter a matatu [minibus] and no one would want to sit next to me. If they were seated there you could see that they were uncomfortable and nervous," an emotional Sarah explains.
Sarah says since she was diagnosed with cancer last year she has lost a couple of friends who gave in to the stress associated with the stigma attached to the illness. It is from a friend, who also happens to be a cancer patient, that Sarah learned about Diana's Salon, which offers high-end wigs free of charge.
Aketch started a local charity called Pink Butterfly where she provides wigs to cancer survivors at no charge. "They spend so much money during cancer treatment; it pains me to see that they are being charged over 30,000 Kenyan shillings [$300] for wigs," she says.
"I started this program after a friend of mine came to me after she was diagnosed with cancer and asked me to make her a wig. That is when I thought it was time to give back to the community."
On her own she was able to purchase wigs for more than 20 cancer survivors. She says that she has received over 80 requests from cancer patients all over Kenya, about which she says, "I will change their lives with time." Aketch says that, at the moment, she receives no funding from any organization. She has supported the program alone but recently well-wishers and clients have been helping to buy wigs.
After Aketch places a new wig on Wangui's head, she heads straight for a huge mirror mounted on the wall. Sarah - who can't hide her joy - says, "Now no one will be able to tell that I am undergoing chemotherapy; this is original human hair and, as you can see, I look pretty."
Just like Sarah, Lucy Kanana is also a cancer patient. Diagnosed with stage-four cancer in January, she has been able to fend off the stress associated with medically-induced hair loss by wearing the wigs. "For me I always feel pretty; no one can look at me and make me feel bad about my condition.
"If all salonists join hands, if the government decides to help cancer patients, then this will not just be a dream - we will put a smile on every cancer survivor out there," Kanana said. There are more than 39,000 new cancer cases annually in Kenya, according to the country's Network of Cancer Organizations.