Ruth Hourani swept hair from the floor at Profile Salon on a recent Monday, locks of brown, gray, red—each strand a story.

Hourani, a volunteer at Profile Salon’s Beautiful You program, knows that story of picking up the pieces all too well. The cancer story.

Just a short time ago, Hourani sat in those salon chairs.

Once a month, the Grand Rapids, Michigan, salon treats cancer patients to complimentary manicures, pedicures, massages and hair services.

Hourani said she gained so much from the fellowship and pampering at Beautiful You that she wanted to give back. She now volunteers there.

But it’s been a long and frightening journey from then until now.

In March 2016, Hourani underwent a routine mammogram. She went in confident. After all, she performed regular breast exams.

But when she overheard the receptionist attempting to schedule a biopsy after the mammogram, she knew.

“They had me scheduled for an ultrasound then switched it to a biopsy,” Hourani said. “Right then I thought, ‘Uh-oh, this isn’t going to be good.’”

That was on a Friday. The following Monday, March 14, her phone rang. Results. Results she did not want to hear. She suffered from an aggressive cancer.

“My husband (Thom) put the phone on speaker because I knew I wouldn’t retain much,” Hourani said. “It was like the floor dropped right out of my world.”

Aggressive cancer, aggressive action

Within days she met with a Spectrum Health Cancer Center oncologist and radiologist to discuss treatment.

“I went from a biopsy to being told to get ready for surgery within a week,” she said.

She had a lumpectomy on her left side on March 31. Doctors also removed two lymph nodes. They were clean, but due to the type of cancer, HER2, she had to undergo six chemo treatments, six weeks of radiation and a full year of preventative treatment called Herceptan.

She tried to keep life as normal as possible for her husband and two sons, Anthony, 21, and Thom, 18.

“My youngest son was a senior in high school and I wanted to make sure his last year was fun for him and it wasn’t all about Mom being sick,” she said. “When I look back, I don’t know how I did it. I was exhausted.”

Hourani threw up a denial defense at first—about the cancer diagnosis, about everything happening in her once-normal life.

“I lost my hair,” she said. “Two weeks from the first treatment they tell you you start losing it and they were dead on.”

Feeling beautiful again

Hourani enjoys sporting a sharp hair style. A friend of hers told her about the Beautiful You program.

“I was hesitant at first because I was so much in denial about what I was going through,” Hourani said. “I went there on one of their off days and had them shave my head. Your hair doesn’t fall out a piece at a time. It falls out in handfuls. If I had to do it over again I would shave my head right away. It was more traumatic to see it fall out.”

Hourani remembers feeling embarrassed. Ashamed. Different.

“They took me into a special room so I wouldn’t be out in public (for the head shaving),” Hourani said. “I felt very secluded and alone because it is a lonely journey. Unless you’re going through it, no one can understand how you’re feeling or really be there for you.”

Despite her hesitancy, when she started attending monthly Beautiful You sessions, she gained camaraderie, comfort and compassion.

“I thought I needed something to look forward to,” Hourani said. “I needed to be with people who were OK seeing me without hair. Friendships change throughout this type of journey because most people don’t know how to handle seeing you sick. Most people are used to seeing me very strong. I’m happy hiding my emotions. People had a hard time seeing me otherwise.”

When she walked into the salon, she felt sisterhood.

“Everyone is loving and caring,” she said. “You’re catered to—little things you wish other people would do, they did. If your body hurts, you can get a massage. If your head hurts, and your scalp is sensitive to everything, to have your head massaged just means the world to you.”

Sharing the beauty

She sat with like-minded sisters in salon chairs, bald sisters, sisters who shared emotional and physical pain, sisters who somehow understood the juggernaut in her journey.

She so much wanted to get from Point A to Point B, to slay the fears, to dry the tears. Her salon sisters understood that, too.

“I got to know a lot of the people,” she said. “I didn’t leave there without crying, because you could. You don’t feel beautiful when you’re going through cancer. You’re bloated from treatments and hormones. You gain a lot of weight. You just don’t feel at all attractive to anybody.”

Beautiful You offers wigs for those who wish to wear one. They offer sweet treats and coffees and fresh fruit.

Volunteers make purses and scarves and necklaces for the cancer clients.

“You come home with something so you feel like you were given a gift,” Hourani said.

Now, Hourani is repaying that gift. On her first day of volunteering, she brought in fabric purses that a friend of hers made. Hourani wants to start crocheting again so she can make items for the group, too.

But most of all, she wants to impart her gift of knowledge, of being a cancer survivor, of reaching back to a sister who is at Point A, and helping them to recognize there is indeed a real-life Point B somewhere in the not too distant future.

She wants to help them believe. To trust. To know.

“I’m hoping to be an advocate, to talk to the women about what they can expect,” Hourani said. “I hope that I can make people feel as good as I felt, and feel as beautiful as I felt when I was there.”

Hourani hugged the receptionists behind the desk, and talked with cancer patients getting pampered.

She wants to be a guiding hand, through her words.

“I would stay after my appointments just to talk to people and be upbeat with them knowing that it just stinks what you’re going through,” she said. “People will ask what you need and you don’t even know what to tell them. It’s almost as if these women just knew. When you walk in there, they know what you need—a massage, pedicure, manicure…They’ve got to see some pretty ugly feet without toenails (they fall out during chemo), but none of them look shocked.”

Hourani wants to reassure, just as other Beautiful You volunteers reassured her.

“They tell you you look beautiful,” she said. “Your family can tell you the same thing, but it comes differently from women who have been through it. They say, ‘We don’t care how you look. We want you to feel awesome today.’”

She misses the pampering, but now she tries to help others feel awesome.

“When you’re going through cancer, you feel as if you are dying, but you don’t want to feel that way,” she said. “It’s sad so many people have been touched by it. If I can help somebody else understand what they are going through after what I have been through, that right there is a blessing.”

Pam Westers, owner of Profile Salon, launched Beautiful You by Profile four years ago. The program started with less than 10 women three years ago and now pampers 60 to 80 cancer patients every Beautiful You Monday.

“It makes their whole month,” Westers said. “They look forward to this appointment because all their other appointments are hospitals and doctors. They love the relationships they make here. It’s almost like a support group when they’re here. It revitalizes them for the whole month.”