LEWISTON — Surviving cancer is a tough enough job, and Linda Spugnardi knows it.
Patients are fighting for their lives and the treatments can be tough. The last thing they should have to worry about is how they look — but they do.
“When you are going through it, it’s a scary thing for women,” she said.
Spugnardi, a retired hairdresser and former instructor at Mr. Bernard’s School of Hair Fashion who is fighting cancer herself now, knows that feeling confident about their appearance can help some feel better. She spends one Thursday each month at St. Mary’s, giving makeovers to cancer patients.
“I think this is relaxing, it’s fun and it’s informative,” Spugnardi said. “And if they feel good about their appearance, treatment is easier.”
Spugnardi and a friend actually started the Maine branch of the American Cancer Society’s Look Good, Feel Better program more than 30 years ago. They were attending a conference in Washington, D.C., and she took in a session on the program and on wig work for cancer patients.
“Afterwards, I talked to some of the patients and I wondered why they didn’t ask their hairdresser,” she said. “Some didn’t have a hairdresser and the ones that did, their hairdressers weren’t comfortable working on wigs.”
She was an instructor at Bernard’s in Lewiston then and until it closed, and she taught her students how to make the best out of a wig.
“So we started offering a certification course, getting people trained to do this,” she said. “I did it for years until I retired, and now I volunteer, once a month.”
She and Carleen Sperry do most of the Cancer Society’s makeovers in the Twin Cities — Sperry at the Dempsey Center one Wednesday each month and Spugnardi at St. Mary’s, usually on the following Thursday.
Both start out with a quick makeup refresher, using premium makeup donated by the Personal Care Products Council.
“We talk about skin care and how to take care of it, because of treatments,” she said. “We talk about fingernails because they can split or get dry, so they can’t wear nail polishes with ether in them because it can dry them out more. And they can’t use colors, because the doctors check your blood flow by looking at your nails.”
If the patient wants, they talk about head coverings. That can include knits, hats, turbans, scarves or wigs. Spugnardi said she’s well schooled in use of all of them.
“We have head scarves because they don’t want to wear wigs,” she said. “There are whole different ways to tie them on your head and to dress them up, or using a T-shirt as a turban. There are a lot of little tricks we can use.”
She has plenty of wigs donated by a manufacturer and gives one away free to each patient.
She helps them pick a wig, then helps fit it properly for their needs — sizing it to their heads and removing some of the hair if that’s necessary.
“A wig shouldn’t look like a wig. It should look like your hair,” she said. “Sometimes they are made so thick, and it’s the same thickness everywhere on the head. That’s not the way hair is, so we thin them out. When you see a wig you can spot across the street, it has not been serviced.”
Then she teaches them how to wear, clean and care for it. Some try to wear the wigs pulled down over their forehead, like a hat. Nope. The wig’s hairline should be at least four fingers above the eyebrows, where the natural hairline is.
“Most wigs today are synthetic, so you should wash it in cold water,” she said. “You wash it like a handkerchief. And you shouldn’t take cookies out of the oven (with it), because it might melt. So you have to let somebody else take the turkey out of the oven.”
It’s relaxing and fun for everyone, she said, letting them think about something other than their cancer.
“We have fun, and we make sure it all fits good,” she said. “The husband and the family are not allowed in while we are working, so it gives them a chance to interact and talk with each other. And then, to see their husband’s faces when they come with a wig and a little make up — it’s nice.”