Reprinted from News of Norway, Spring 2013. Article by Sina Bråten Lunde.
“People come to me and say, ‘Why would you as a hairdresser want I to work with cancer patients every day; it must make you sad and depressed?’ I just tell them that I get the opportunity to help them deal with the situation and help give them the confidence that they can beat it,” says Eivind Bjerke.
Norwegians Bjerke and Hans Kalset, owners of the Eivind and Hans of Georgetown Salon and Spa in Washington, D.C. help women deal with cancer in their own way.
By offering makeovers and hair replacement, they give women dealing with cancer the spirit and help they need to keep fighting the disease.
Through the program “Look Good … Feel Better,” and in partnership with the Personal Care Products Council, the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Association, Bjerke and Kalset, together with other beauty professionals, have helped more than 700,000 women since 1989. Both Bjerke and Kalset have received awards for their contributions, and in 1992 Bjerke was named a Washingtonian of the Year by Washingtonion magazine, becoming the only hairdresser and only Norwegian ever to do so.
Kalset explains that even though styling hair is his and Bjerke’s livelihood, the two wanted to give back to those who had lost their hair. Being part of a business that understands the importance of hair in an appearance-obsessed society, they understand the difficult challenge women with cancer are facing.
“When we first started this program, there were women who did not want anyone to know that they had cancer. They came in the back door and got help with their wigs. When Sandra Day O’Connor got cancer she came to me for help. Being the first female justice of the Supreme Court, she did not want anyone to know at that time, but when it later came out she told the press that her hairdresser had helped her almost as much as the doctor,” Bjerke says proudly.
He remembers well one of his first trips promoting “Look Good … Feel Better.” He went to New York for an early morning meeting with many of the world’s biggest cosmetics companies. He remembers people looking sleepy and barely concentrating on his presentation. But as he started transforming his model, a cancer patient , by putting on makeup, a wig and hats, the crowd came to life. They could see the transformation of the model and what an important process this could be for her as a patient, and Bjerke left with many new sponsors for the program.
“A woman was brought here by her friends, and she told us she would rather die than lose her hair. She had beautiful, long, thick hair. We sat her down and found a wig that looked almost as beautiful as her own hair and you could just see the light come back in her eyes,” Bjerke says with a smile. He explains that a lot of women are afraid of wigs and they fear they will look like “old aunts.”
The opportunity to give something back is very important for the two owners and they think it may be something they brought with them from Norway. “When we opened the salon we had a fundraiser and raised $50,000, which was donated to Children’s Hospital [in Washington, D.C.]. And all the goodie bags were given to the children instead of the participants,” Bjerke says.
On April 16, Bjerke and Kalset gave free makeovers at Children’s Hospital to teenagers dealing with cancer, “Look Good … Feel Better” has a special program for teens: as they are already going through a lot of changes in their lives, cancer can be an additional challenge that needs extra care and focus.
Even though they have the opportuniry to help so many, Kalset explains that there are customers he knows he will only meet once due to their prognoses. Some may think this is an exhausting job, but he points out that he gets to join so many women in their victory and that makes it all worth it.
“It is such a rewarding feeling to be able to make a person feel like she is taking her life back,” says Kalset. “I have customers that first came in struggling with cancer 15 years ago, and when their hair grows back they come back to the people they trust.” Asked if focusing on appearance in the face of a deadly disease, Kalset is quick to answer. “No, I don’t think so. The disease we can do nothing about, but it does not have to be the focus all the time. We want to give these women the opportunity to lift their head up high and be proud of themselves and ready to say ‘I will beat this,”‘ he says.