Hair Matters

Debby Porter, Hair Matters

Debby Porter is a social worker, cosmetologist, and breast cancer survivor. When you learn what she does for work and how she gives of herself, you will understand why it matters that she is these three things.

Debby runs a non-profit organization called Hair Matters. If you go to her website, this is a screenshot of the first page that pops up.

Woman with hair blowing in face/Hair Matters website

An Identity Restoration Movement. There was a time in Debby’s life that she felt as if she’d lost her own identity. In 2012, at the age of forty-four, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer.

She hadn’t had a medical checkup in three years because she did not have health insurance at the time. If not for an organization called Care Partners, more precious time might have passed before she got her diagnosis. With their help, she saw a doctor and had a physical and a series of tests, including a mammogram, which picked up her cancer.

It was a massive shock to me and truly, the first thing I thought was okay, they’re telling me I have cancer, which can be synonymous with death. You instantly go there. But I also thought, how am I going to do this with any kind of dignity when I know that I’m going to have to do it bald.

Debby Porter, Hair Matters

Debby Porter and her son/Hair Matters
Debby and her son

A few weeks after she began chemotherapy treatments, Debby lost her hair. She says the experience made her feel lonely and isolated and she also developed a distorted view of herself. One night when she was especially tired, she caught a glimpse of her bald head in the mirror.

I thought I just looked like Freddy Krueger. That’s that’s how I felt. It had stripped me of what femininity I thought I had and I felt like an imposter. It was just a really dysmorphic mindset. And even as my hair grew back, I looked in the mirror and I didn’t see me. I saw a caricature or some other person in the mirror.

Debby

Debby wishes she’d had someone to guide her through the process. Who could have laughed and cried with her and who understood what she was going through. It’s hard to fight a life-threatening illness when you feel stripped of your power and have no sense of who you are anymore.

She remembers that before her hair started falling out, she had no idea what to expect.

You’re on pins and needles wondering what’s going to happen? Is it all going to come out at once? Is it going to feel different? How fast does it happen? And what’s the best way to go about this? Should I cut my hair shorter? Should I just go ahead and shave it or should I let it fall out on its own?

Debby

Debby Porter with hat on/Hair Matters
Photo courtesy of Dempsey Center-South Portland

While she may not have felt it during her treatments, Debby possesses a great deal of strength, including a strong sense of herself. She reached out to resources that were available, even when they didn’t quite fit her needs. Sometimes, she didn’t even know what she needed.

Once her treatments were over and she was feeling stronger — in body, mind, and spirit — she decided to help other people who were facing hair loss. That’s when she created Hair Matters.

I was at the Cancer Community Center [now the Dempsey Center – South Portland] and they were giving me a tour. They walked me into a room that had wigs and hats and scarves and head forms, stuffed into drawers and closets. And the woman who was showing me said, “This is crazy. We get all these donations and we don’t know what to do with them.” I was a stylist and I thought, well, that’s a shame. I told them I’d be happy to take some and see if I could get them to people who needed them. And that’s how how it started.

Debby

Hair Matters is based at Ocean Waves, a salon in South Portland, Maine, where Debby is a stylist. Another stylist sees clients in the Wells area, and when we spoke, two more in Gorham were expected to join the team. They work with a wide range of people who have primarily lost their hair because of cancer treatments. Some have other conditions, such as alopecia areata. Services usually begin right at diagnosis through one year after the person’s final medical treatment.

Beth Gifford and Debby Porter/Hair Matters
Beth and Debby

Beth Gifford is a client.

I’m a teacher from Arkansas. My husband was born in Maine and he convinced me to move up here. I love home, but I love here, too, and I’m determined to stay here.

Beth Gifford

In September, shortly after she and her husband and twelve-year-old daughter moved to Maine, Beth was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer. She started her treatments and waited for her hair to fall out and it didn’t. No one could give her a specific timeline but would only say it should happen within two weeks, then probably a week.

Beth Gifford before she lost her hair/Hair Matters
Beth Gifford

I started getting nervous. You know, you get your doctors but no one gives you a beautician to handle this situation and it’s one of the hardest parts of this whole process to me. I asked the Dempsy Center and one of my cancer specialists and they both told me about Debby and Hair Matters. I called and made an appointment.

Beth

The way Hair Matters works is that within a network of salons (which Debby wants to grow), stylists work alongside clients like Beth through every stage of their treatment and hair loss.

They will cut your hair in stages and shave it off for you whenever and wherever you want. You can have a head-shaving party that includes your family, children, friends, anyone. Together, you and your stylist will come up with a plan that works for you. It could include wearing headbands, hats, scarves, a wig. If you want a wig, they’ll help you get one, fit and customize it and keep it in good shape. They’ll also help you as your own hair grows back in.

Beth Gifford with new bob/Hair Matters

To me, her program was a godsend, because I didn’t have money to pay a beautician to go through this process with me. At the first appointment, she cut my hair off into the cutest bob and talked to me about the whole process. People don’t see the mental side of losing your hair. Within four days, I was pulling gulps of hair out with my hands and so I called her back and I said, I think it’s time. She said come in tomorrow. I’m sorry if I start crying about this. I went in the next day and she was so precious. She talked to my daughter because my daughter wanted to be with me. She asked her if she had any questions and she explained the whole process and how my hair would come back. And then she went ahead and did a short shave on my head.

Beth

Beth's daughter, Debby Porter, Beth/Hair Matters
Debby standing between Beth and her daughter

Here’s why those three things I said about Debby at the beginning of this post are relevant. As a social worker, she is experienced in how to connect with people, especially when they are at their most vulnerable. She is trained to communicate, not only with words but on an emotional level. As a cosmetologist/stylist, she knows how to make people look good and can handle hair really well, whether it’s on someone’s head or made into a wig. As a cancer survivor, she understands what it’s like to fight for your life and to have what is most familiar to you — your personal identity — stripped away with every fistful of hair that comes out until there isn’t a strand left.

I wish and I hope there can be a Hair Matters in every state. So that someone who’s going through cancer can ask their doctor, who’s the beautician I can go see? And they say, oh, there’s this organization that will walk you through the whole process. They’re going to hold your hand and they’re going to feel like a friend, which is what Debby has been.

Beth

Having trained Hair Matters’ stylists in every state is Debby’s dream, as well.

We’re planning to develop a curriculum that certifies cosmetologists. They’d be trained on cancer treatments and the effects on hair, skin, and nails, but would also get sensitivity training. And stylists need support, too, because it can have an emotional impact on them, as well.

My idea would be to get eight to 10 stylists per state, within a comfortable area of each treatment facility. I don’t want this to be another medical appointment. I want it to be something that brings a person relief and comfort.

Debby

Read the testimonials on the website and you will see just how much comfort Hair Matters gives. Here’s what Beth has to say:

Debbie’s a remarkable woman. She honestly IS her program. I don’t know where I would be with my hair through this process if it weren’t for her. It’s definitely been a blessing.

Beth

If you would like more information about Hair Matters, you can visit the website, call (207) 216-1016, or send an email. There is a charge for services, but Debby says she will work with people. As a non-profit, she relies primarily on donations and grants to help finance the organization.

Debby with checks from 100+ Women Who Care - Southern Maine Chapter
Debby with checks from 100+ Women Who Care – Southern Maine Chapter

Hair Matters recently got a huge boost from 100+ Women Who Care – Southern Maine Chapter. At their last meeting, members selected Hair Matters to receive their collective donation of nearly $15,000. She will use the money to establish a headquarters where the program and curriculum can be further developed.

Another dream of Debby’s is using a patient’s own hair to make a wig that she/he can wear during treatments. Thanks to the big donation, she’s another step closer to making that happen, as well. Let the WEFTING begin, she says!

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Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane was the health reporter on WCSH 6. Before that, a radiation therapist at Maine Medical Center and after, Manager of Marketing/PR at Mercy Hospital. She now hosts and produces the Catching Health podcast and writes the award-winning blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.