The beauty of healing

Sometimes a day at the salon is anything but superficial. It’s essential.

Throughout the course of their treatment, many cancer patients watch helplessly as their bodies undergo a host of physical changes. For women, hair loss and the deterioration of skin tone can exact a particularly emotional toll.

The Beauty of Healing

Courtesy of Penn Medicine

Joe Howe, a stylist who works at the Jason Matthew Salon on 15th and Walnut streets in Center City, understands the connection between looking good and feeling great. That is why he started The Beauty of Healing, a program that offers free salon services to patients at Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center who are undergoing oncology treatments.

Joe Howe, a stylist who works at the Jason Matthew Salon on 15th and Walnut streets in Center City, understands the connection between looking good and feeling great. That is why he started The Beauty of Healing, a program that offers free salon services to patients at Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center who are undergoing oncology treatments.

“The point of it isn’t so much about giving them a good manicure or a nice facial or making them look pretty for the day. It’s about rekindling that spirit,” Howe says. “Trying to help people figure out where they are on that little journey is what I think we’re all about.”

Howe’s personal path began in Ohio, where in his friend and mentor Denise Soto’s salon, he first donated his time to working with cancer patients. He came to Philly in 2008. Howe always wanted to start a similar program in the City of Brotherly Love, but didn’t act on it until Soto passed away from breast cancer in January.

Howe reached out to Penn and Cynthia Griffo, director of communications and education at the Abramson Cancer Center, assured him that if he offered the services, the Center would encourage patients to attend.

“It was designed for cancer patients so they would feel comfortable being with other cancer patients instead of having to deal with the usual salon experience,” Griffo says. “With Joe’s personality and knowledge, I knew our patients would be in good hands.”

On the last Wednesday of each month, the Jason Matthew Salon closes to the general public at 6 p.m. and from that hour on, oncology patients are its only customers.

“It’s a pool of people who all understand what each other is going through,” Howe says.

One of the most emotional side effects of chemotherapy is hair loss. It can occur anywhere on the body, and it can begin in a matter of days. Howe helps patients cope with the change.

“At that point, I try to coach people into shaving their head for a couple of reasons,” Howe says. “First, it relieves the scalp pains that are often associated with hair loss and chemo, and also it ends the traumatic effects of losing your hair little by little.”

Later, when hair begins to grow back, its texture and color often are different than before. It can be very curly and fine, almost like that of a newborn, Howe says. At that point, he typically suggests trimming the fine ends of the new growth for a few months. “Normally, within six months, hair is beginning to go back to its usual texture,” he says.

Gail C. Slappy, a patient at the Center, has battled cancer twice. She was diagnosed with breast cancer 13 years ago, and more recently, cancer in her esophagus. After having a feeding tube removed in February, a visit to the Beauty of Healing night in March was just what she needed to lift her spirits.

After a massage, a facial, and a manicure, she left the salon rejuvenated. “I felt like a million dollars,” she says. “I felt reenergized and reinvigorated. My mom used to say ‘If you look good, you feel good and you do good.’ When I left I was on cloud nine.”

The next session is scheduled for May 25, and Howe looks forward to serving more and more Penn patients in the future. After posting a note about the program’s success on his Facebook page, he was contacted by Soto’s widower.

“He sent one of the most beautiful emails I’ve ever read,” Howe said. “He closed it by saying, ‘Denise would be proud to see what you’re doing with this program.’”

Originally published on May 19, 2011