Beauty, love and compassion
PUBLISHED: 12:16 03 March 2015 | UPDATED: 12:16 03 March 2015
Copyright Phil Pleace
Turning a high-flying career in hairdressing into a charity helping adults and children experiencing hair loss caused by cancer treatment led Knebworth's Jasmin Gupta on a journey from top salons to hospital wards. In Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month she tells her inspiring story to Julie Lucas
Knebworth’s Jasmin Gupta is a hairdresser who worked her way up to the position of global director for top salon, Trevor Sorbie. But having reached this career height she becoming disillusioned with the industry and turned her back on it all. Looking to make a real difference with her talents, she reapplied them to create Cancer Hair Care, the first charity of its kind solely dedicated to helping people with hair loss due to cancer treatment.
The charity provides a double level of care: advice on hair loss, wigs, scarves and new hair growth and also support with both the physical and physiological issues of those who have lost their hair, sometimes ‘just providing a cup of tea and a shoulder to cry on,’ Jasmin says.
‘I was 29, head of a global brand and had worked all around the world,’ Jasmin explains, ‘But I totally and utterly lost my passion and I just thought I cannot do this anymore. In fact, it felt like a waste not to do so much more with what I had learnt.’
She thought back to when she had got the most out of her work. ‘I remember getting an orange and using it to show a lady how to massage her head. I taught her how to massage using the tips of her fingers; this then stimulates the hair follicles. I just felt so at home with that.’
It was this insight that led her to take up voluntary work with the Terence Higgins Trust, supporting people who had suffered hair loss as a side-effect of treatment for HIV/Aids.
It was in October 2005 while sitting on Brighton beach surrounded by hair loss leaflets that Jasmine had a Eureka moment. ‘I remember thinking something needs to be done to make this more beautiful. It seemed so shrouded in mystery and I felt I wanted to demystify the whole thing.
‘The name Cancer Hair Care popped into my head – I was so excited. I registered it that day and said to my husband Marc, “I know what I’m going to do but we need to move back to Stevenage and move in with my parents so we can raise the money to start this charity.” Luckily he had faith in both me and my idea.’
The charity began with Jasmin working from home, ‘A kitchen table charity’ as she calls it. ‘I would get calls at 10 at night and I would pretend I was still in the office!
‘When we finally moved into a real office in 2012 my husband was so grateful – by then the house was drowning in scarves, paperwork and wigs.’
Family and friends helped Jasmin get the charity off the ground. ‘Over the years I have had my husband wearing blonde affro wigs and running triathlons,’ she explains. ‘In fact there is not a single one of my friends or family that hasn’t been forced to wear wigs. But I think the funniest was my dad – there’s nothing like an Indian man in a blonde wig, sipping tea and eating cake for charity.
Jasmin’s mum handmade and developed the charity’s organic fair trade scarf. ‘It’s designed so it can fit anybody aged three to 103 as it has a special way you can tie it,’ Jasmin says. ‘She would run them up at home. This then spread to the local Women’s Institute and we now give thousands away.’
From a staff of one, Cancer Hair Care has grown to a team of 20. Many of these have gone through cancer themselves and come out of the experience wanting to help others.
Sara Vincent met Jasmin during treatment at Lister Hospital and visited her for support and advice. Sara explains, ‘We chatted about how many women would benefit from the same type of support and Jasmin asked me if I would be interested in training up to be an adviser. I jumped at the chance and now work for the charity two mornings a week. It’s great to give something back to a charity that helped me feel human again.’
Jasmin says it is women like Sara who have a special connection with cancer patients, ‘They relate with people on a totally different level – to inspire you and say I have been in the same position and lost all my hair.’
At 39, Jasmin is now the UK’s leading cancer hair loss expert. Although she stopped counting at 5,000, she estimates the charity has provided over 100,000 free services to date. While helping all ages, she is understandably proud of the work the charity does with children and teenagers, and not just those going through treatment. Specialist dolls are given to young children ‘to help explain mummy’s hair loss’, Jasmin explains. This method has become an invaluable tool in helping children understand what is happening.
Teenagers who are going through cancer treatment are offered one-to-one advice as well as customised head scarves to help them feel like a regular youngster again. ‘Teenagers crave independence,’ says Jasmin. ‘Of course parents want the lovely pink headscarf but you can bet that the 14-year-old will want the black headscarf with skulls on. We give them both because we want to support the parents to help the teenager.’
Cancer Hair Care now offers not only in-hospital services but supportive sessions outside of hospital called Coffee, Cake and Confidence. Held at the charity’s Caring Studio in Middle Row, Stevenage, the sessions help women to cope with hair loss and create looks that they are comfortable with.
‘I always felt that something needed to be done to help people through this traumatic experience, that is why I started the charity,’ Jasmin says. ‘Women have enough to worry about and I try to make hair loss one less worry.’