Maybe the idea came up just like inspiration usually does: like lightning, or a window that suddenly opens. After some time working with hair extensions, it occurred to hairdresser Loanni Guerra Torres that he might use a similar technique to create wigs for cancer patients.
Perhaps something like that was meant to happen since he was a kid. He enjoyed braiding an ear of corn’s fluff from his grandfather’s farm, where he grew up, – eight kilometers from Velasco, a town in Holguin province.
Nowadays, Nany –as people also call him– has developed a friendly, noninvasive method: before hair loss begins (due to oncological treatment), he cuts off locks from patients and then sews them to a mesh, making a wig with each person’s own hair. As a result, the expected image change is not that radical. Hence, the emotional impact produced by the disease lessens, and patients somehow improve their quality of living.
The project, named Autoestima, luz y corazón (Self-esteem, light and heart) started in 2016 in Holguin. About two years later it spread to Camagüey, Santiago de Cuba, Granma and Havana. Today it has reached every province of the island, according to Loanni. This service is totally free, and includes people suffering from alopecia.
Loanni highlights the positive impact of wigs on children, and particularly teenage girls: some of them could even have their 15th birthday party and take the correspondent traditional photo session wearing their wigs.
“When you talk to patients about this idea, they take it as a ‘medicine of confidence’; (they can) show themselves to the world with no complex.” “Knowing their relatives will feel better, families support the initiative too,” asserts the hairdresser. As presented in various local TV reports, doctors also back the use of these oncological wigs.
An aunt of hers had died of breast cancer a couple of years ago, so she knew first-hand how much patients value the wigs, and the difficulties to get them.
In an effort to expand those benefits, community project ArteCorte, a solid player in the social work space in Old Havana, invited Ioanni to give a lecture about this matter. Next steps encompass to set up a team in order to enlarge the wigs production.
Every Help Counts
“The idea is that some students learn this specialty, that is pretty complex,” says Adriana Ricardo Díaz, director of ArteCorte. For more than a decade, the hairdressing school of the community project – founded and led by hairdresser Gilberto Valladares (Papito)– has taught the trade, for free, to young people who are not pursuing studies nor have a job.
With the support of the City Historian’s Office, in March 2021 ArteCorte inaugurated a small salon at the Oncological Hospital in Havana (National Institute of Oncology and Radiobiology), aiming to serve patients, companions and health personnel – also free of charge.
As part of the service, they allocated some wigs they had received through donations. “We always insist that a wig is an option, remarks Adriana. If someone wants to show their scalp, that is okay.”
Because of pandemic restrictions, hairdressers barely have had the chance to see patients, but they do offer services to doctors and hospital staff. In the meantime, while trying to get a sewing machine to make new wigs, they started to collect natural hair from voluntary donors.
Indeed, some other beauty salons in the city, like SearaBella, Salón Odalys, Q’bonita Colina and Pedro King Barber, had helped them to spread the message, and even to accept donations on their behalf.
Lidia Llizo Ferro had made a promise: she wouldn’t cut her hair until she achieved an important personal goal; then, she would take her lengthy bun to San Lázaro. But when she read on Facebook about this other possibility, she changed her mind.
An aunt of hers had died of breast cancer a couple of years ago, so she knew first-hand how much patients value the wigs, and the difficulties to get them. So finally, last December, giving her hair “was an homage to my aunt, and a way to help oncological patients,” says Lidia. Despite the potential proceeds, she never considered selling the hair. “It was very long, maybe it would be a certain amount of money; but no, that was never my plan.”
Neither Laura Álvarez Sánchez, who donated last February, had thought about selling. Actually, she had some locks she had kept as souvenirs from previous cuts. “The medical part should be complemented with psychology and support from family and friends, or even a stranger,” comments Laura. If someone is donating part of their body to give it to you, so you can feel better, you put more willpower in recovering.”
This sort of initiative had taken place before in places such as Venezuela, Florida, or Bosnia. Now, in the middle of the crushing economic crisis that Cuba is going through, actions of solidarity like these are always a reason to not give up hope.