At first, Kathy Walker seemed a bit hesitant when she walked into the salon on the third floor of Spectrum Health Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion.
She wore a baseball cap over her long blond hair, which had started falling out in clumps because of chemotherapy.
“You could see the sweetness in her eyes,” said Rebekah Pokorzynski, a stylist at Beautiful You, a nonprofit that caters to women and girls undergoing cancer treatment.
As Walker eased herself into a chair, Pokorzynski began to work her magic.
She freshened up the ends of Walker’s hair, which still reached below the shoulders. Then Pokorzynski pulled out some color swatches and wig samples.
“She just blossomed,” Pokorzynski said.
They found a perfect match.
“It was a God thing,” Pokorzynski said. “We slid that over her remaining golden locks and … she was back. That was her.”
Walker, of Muskegon, Michigan, thought she’d never wear a wig. But that changed as soon as she looked in the mirror.
“When they say, ‘Beautiful You,’ that’s what it makes you feel like,” Walker said. “It makes you feel like a woman again.”
Since 2014, Beautiful You has been pampering women and girls undergoing cancer treatment. Founder Pam Westers, who owns Profile Salon in Comstock Park, Michigan, began by offering Beautiful You Mondays at her shop on Alpine Avenue, where women and girls could get their hair shaved before being fitted for a wig.
They also get to enjoy haircuts, pedicures, manicures and massages, with stylists and massage therapists volunteering their time.
Clients could always look forward to a gentle touch and camaraderie.
Even if they arrived nervous, “they leave laughing and crying with joy,” Westers said.
Beautiful You grew so popular, Westers rented a second space next to Profile Salon. In addition to the special treatment on Mondays, women can make individual appointments. Those undergoing active cancer treatment qualify for complimentary salon and spa services, including wigs and head coverings.
‘She has a fighting spirit’
Beautiful You opened at Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion in January 2020.
Walker, 67, learned about the Beautiful You after her boyfriend, John Van Wyck, had talked to a golfing buddy whose wife went there during cancer treatment.
Together 14 years, Walker and Van Wyck have enjoyed an active retirement. In the summers they ride their Harley Davidson motorcycle, and in the winters they visit their place in Florida.
Walker brightens when she describes how she spends most of her days: spending time with her twin 3-year-old grandchildren, Kloe and Bobby, who keep her moving.
When she began losing weight last December, Walker didn’t think much of it.
“I’m the kind of person who is never sick,” she said.
By April, however, she had dropped 35 pounds, putting her overall weight at just 96 pounds.
“I thought, ‘This is a problem,'” she said. “I wasn’t able to eat anything at all. I’d take two bites and be good for two days.”
She also experienced severe back pain.
After returning to Muskegon from Florida in April, she soon connected with Sreenivasa Chandana, MD, PhD, a medical oncologist specializing in pancreatic cancer treatment at Cancer and Hematology Centers of Westen Michigan.
Walker had a tumor on her pancreas. She underwent treatment for cancer and received medication to control the pain, and Dr. Chandana developed a chemotherapy regimen aimed at keeping “a tight lid” on the cancer.
She began treatment at Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion in June. She receives chemotherapy three Fridays in a row, with the fourth Friday off.
“Everyone there is just wonderful,” Walker said.
Dr. Chandana often stops down to check on her. A recent scan showed the tumor is shrinking and the cancer has not spread.
“Part of it is the science and what we are doing,” Dr. Chandana said. “And most of it, her positive attitude. She has a fighting spirit.”
They set a goal for Walker to gain 4 pounds and tip the scale at 100 pounds by year’s end.
Walker also finds much motivation in spending time with her grandkids.
“I really need to see if I can make myself better,” she said.
Amid it all, her positive attitude shines through.
“She is a trouper,” Dr. Chandana said. “She is extremely positive.”
‘A little bit of sunshine’
So far, Walker hasn’t lost any more weight and her appetite is back.
“I feel the best now that I’ve felt in months,” she said.
“That’s what happens when you take control of the cancer,” Dr. Chandana said.
Amid her health journey, Walker continues to spend cherished time with her grandchildren. She proudly shows off pictures of them. Kloe wants to be a doctor, so Walker and Van Wyck bought her a real stethoscope.
One day, Kloe said, “Nana, your hair is falling out.” Walker explained that it’s because of the medicine she needs to get better.
“Don’t worry,” Kloe replied. “We’ll buy you some hair.”
In a recent visit to Beautiful You, Walker and Pokorzynski quickly fell into easy conversation.
Walker provided updates about her grandkids as Pokorzynski braided her wig, freshened her eyeliner and showed her some head coverings for winter.
Beautiful You also offers Vera Bradley chemotherapy bags with items such as hand lotion, along with paraffin wax treatments and scalp massages. It delivers that little something extra.
“They come and get to see me and that’s a little bit of sunshine in that part of the day,” Pokorzynski said.
“They’re in the fight of their life,” she said. “When they ask how much a hat or wig is and I tell them it’s free, they always get a tear in their eye. For them, it’s a relief. A gift. Something they don’t have to worry about.”
Both Walker and Van Wyck remember the first visit to Beautiful You as a turning point.
“When she put that wig on, (Van Wyck) said, ‘I haven’t seen a smile like that in a long time,’” Walker said.
During her chemotherapy treatments, she always makes a point to tell other women about Beautiful You.
“It makes you feel so much better,” Walker said. “I think: Be upbeat. You have to be.”