Some Attractive Medicine

With wigs, makeup and volunteer stylists, the Claudia Mayer Cancer Resource and Image Center enables patients to live their lives as they fight their disease


Instead of waiting for her hair to fall out after she started chemotherapy in March 2004, Stephanie Dietz decided to have her head shaved and get a wig. It was a way for her to take control of her fight with breast cancer.

The day she got her wig at the Claudia Mayer Cancer Resource and Image Center, Dietz turned the appointment into a party, bringing friends and family along as she tried on different wigs before settling on a dirty-blond spiky one, which was then custom-styled for her.

Dietz's focus on how she would look while fighting cancer is very normal. Cancer patients certainly worry about feeling sick and they focus on survival, but they also think about losing their hair and eyebrows, and about the dry patches and blemishes that can mar the skin.

Some of that worry is a desire not to look sick, Dietz said. "I didn't want to stand out, because I didn't want anyone feeling sorry for me," she said.

The Claudia Mayer center, which opened in 1998 and is a service of Howard County General Hospital, is housed in a small building on Cedar Lane near the hospital. It serves as a library of cancer information and as a "salon," where local stylists volunteer their time helping clients with the beauty problems that cancer and chemotherapy can bring. Although women make up most of the clients, men and children get help there, too.

The carpeted space is cozy, with a plump sofa and a kitchenette stocked with tea and cookies. Shelves are crowded with books, magazines, pamphlets and other information, and computers are set up so clients can search the Web for resources and information.

A private room serves as a beauty salon, with two chairs, a sink, mirrors and racks of wigs and hats. Another room is for makeup and skin care. Swimsuits and bras for mastectomy patients are for sale. Appointments are needed for the salon services - including cutting and styling hair as it grows out - but the center also serves as a haven for people who just want to get out of the house, maybe have a cookie and read through some materials.

Sharon Zamkoff, director of the center, said when people arrive for the first time, she often meets with them for an hour to 90 minutes. "Our real job is to find out what someone needs help with then and help them envision their next step or two," she said.

"Cancer is a group of complicated concepts and our job is to chunk that down to more manageable pieces," she said.

The center has served about 6,400 people since it opened, plus 50 to 100 people per month who call for advice and references, Zamkoff said. Clients are often referred by doctors. "But right now we need more people to know about it," she said. "That remains a challenge."

Dietz, as it happened, didn't get treated at Howard County General Hospital. She discovered the center through her neighbor Mary Esmond, who took it upon herself to find resources for her friend.

Esmond, who fought cancer herself 14 years ago, was so impressed with the center that she began holding pool-party fundraisers for it at her house.

"Once I saw it and I saw what it did for her, not just physically but emotionally - I get teary-eyed thinking about - I knew I had to do more," she said.

Tina Broccolino, the wife of hospital CEO Victor Broccolino, started the center with a friend, Lynne Salisbury, a cancer survivor who has since moved to Florida. Broccolino believes it is the only center in the state that combines a resource library with an image center.

The center is named for Broccolino's friend, Claudia Mayer, who died of cancer at age 47, not surviving to see the center open. "At her funeral, we decided to name the center for her," Broccolino said. Her husband, physician Bill Mayer, gave his approval.

The center is funded by the Howard Hospital Foundation, and relies on fundraisers to keep it going. The money pays Zamkoff's salary and covers general overhead. Most of the services come from about 25 volunteers, including about 10 local stylists, Zamkoff said.

Annual fundraising events include a soccer tournament, Cuts Against Cancer, a tea and fashion show and the pool party. But Edmonds noted that the fundraisers do more than raise money - they also increase awareness. Nobody likes to think about cancer, or that they will ever get it, she said.

Darlene Miller, chair of the center's advisory board, said she only became active with the center after she was diagnosed with colon cancer four years ago.

Miller, whose husband, Henry, was chairman of the hospital's board of directors, knew about the Claudia Mayer center, but didn't pay much attention to it, she said. Even after her cancer was diagnosed, she didn't think she needed it. "I had great health care, wonderful friends, a terrific husband," she said. "Who would think I would need anything else?"

But at a friend's urging, she went to the center, where Lynn Shannon of Lynn's Day Spa "let us play makeup," she said. "It was the first time in a long time I felt normal," Miller said. "It was just fun. It was a girl's night out."

She began serving on the advisory board three years ago.

When she was in the midst of chemo, she would sometimes come to the center just to get out of the house. "This is a safe place," she said.

"I think what Claudia Mayer can do for people," Miller said, "is, by giving them a sense of normalcy, give them a sense of hope."

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