HER MAGAZINE

It's about hair - and helping cancer patients maintain their identity, regain a sense of normalcy

Nicole Gerdin of Solon, a breast cancer survivor herself, leads the Eastern Iowa chapter of Strands of Strength. (Photo by Mike Fager, fisheye photography)
Nicole Gerdin of Solon, a breast cancer survivor herself, leads the Eastern Iowa chapter of Strands of Strength. (Photo by Mike Fager, fisheye photography)
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Nicole Gerdin knows how important having a wig can be when going through cancer treatment.

Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011, not long after finding out she was pregnant with her fourth child, Gerdin went through chemotherapy during her pregnancy and, as a result, lost her hair. Having a wig helped the Solon woman feel normal and, after finishing her treatments, she gave birth to a

healthy baby boy.

“Things turned out in such a good way for me, and like many people, I wanted to give back to other cancer patients,” Gerdin said. “Someone said, ‘You need to contact Deb Pulver in Des Moines.’”

Pulver, another cancer survivor, had started Strands of Strength, a nonprofit that gives cancer patients $300 vouchers to buy a wig at a partnering salon.

“I reached out to her, and she graciously helped us form this chapter in Eastern Iowa,” Gerdin said.

Gerdin and a team of volunteers have been raising money and distributing vouchers since 2015, helping almost 500 women and men who’ve lost their hair regain a sense of normalcy while going through cancer treatments.

“The community has really embraced it,” Gerdin said. “We’re still working on raising awareness with health care providers so we can reach more cancer patients.”

“It can be very, very emotional for a woman or a man to lose their hair. We identify ourselves so much by our appearance, and hair is a big part of that,” said Tracy Lacina, an oncology-trained wig specialist at Skin Deep Salon and Spa, a partner salon in Coralville.

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Gerdin knows that, without the voucher program, many women would forgo getting wigs because their medical bills are already causing a financial strain.

“A lot of women say, ‘I just didn’t want to spend the money on myself,’” Gerdin said. “But their kids want mom to still look like herself. And the woman herself wants to go out to dinner without people noticing.

“We have people who, after they’re done with treatment, reach back out to help the charity because they were moved by how much it helped them. It provided some of that normalcy for them and their family.”

Gerdin, who was a rehabilitation counselor before having kids, is dedicated to growing the Strands of Strength chapter in Eastern Iowa.

“We’re already reaching some of the smaller areas like Dubuque and Carroll and Mason City,” Gerdin said. “Every year we try to identify a new area of

Iowa and help them find partner salons and health care providers. We help them like Des Moines did for us that first year.”

D Vizecky, the wig specialist at Hair Replacement Center in Cedar Rapids, estimates that she sees two to 10 cancer patients a month through Strands of Strength.

“I’ve seen too many ladies who can’t afford to buy a wig, and insurance won’t pay for it. … The vouchers help them restore their identity,” Vizecky said.

Partnering with Strands of Strength, Vizecky said, “has brought me a lot of joy.”

Gerdin credits her committee members for the organization’s success.

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“They are so committed,” she said. And she thanks the community for its support of the organization’s mission.

“Reaching more cancer patients, that’s our goal,” she said.

The next Strands of Strength luncheon will be Oct. 3 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at The Hotel at Kirkwood Center in Cedar Rapids. The event will include a silent auction, guest speakers and a live auction. Tickets are $150. To learn more, go online to strandsofstrength.com.

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