The patient always comes first and how we can best support them through this chapter of their lives.Leigh
In the hills of Wellington, there is a lady working quietly to change the world, one head of hair at a time. Leigh Renai, or “the Wellington wig lady”, has the huge responsibility of helping those with medical hair loss face the world and their treatment with confidence - and it’s not one she takes lightly.
Leigh began her long career nearly 30 years ago in the cosmetic industry but switched to providing services in medical hair loss about 27 years ago after discovering a lack of support in this area, particularly in regard to cancer care. She also discovered the importance of personal appearance in maintaining the self-esteem of those with a cancer diagnosis while a family member was being treated for cancer.
“Hair was a huge part of their identity. It was a full-on experience for me too and hit me personally. I had experience in skin care, make up and hair so we spent many hours together discussing how to maintain their personal appearance in an era when you didn’t talk about these things,” explains Leigh. “I respect the privacy and patience required, and I always let people tell me what they need.”
While her family member sadly passed away only nine months after the cancer diagnosis, Leigh has been inspired to follow this career that in a way “found her first”. She has to date helped more than 10,000 people with medical hair loss in the Wellington region, although she prefers to fly under the radar, giving her time and energy behind the privacy of the closed door of her personal studio.
Leigh has had a connection with the Cancer Society of New Zealand from the very beginning. She tutored support classes for patients through the cosmetic charity ‘Look Good Feel Better’, a close partner of the Cancer Society.
“It was a natural collaboration for me. The Cancer Society is an organisation full of professionals, professionals who also care. The patient always comes first and how we can best support them through this chapter of their lives. The initial classes of Look Good Feel Better were even held in the Cancer Society’s rooms.”
Leigh received a Wellington ‘Local Hero’ award in 2017, which she rarely speaks of. Even her husband supported her in the early days by “lugging around make up and mirrors”. While cancer patients make up a large part of her clientele, she also provides services to people with cranial surgeries, burns and similar conditions. And she describes herself as “just one of those invisible people”.
“I quickly found my niche. It was all about connecting with people. Skin care, make up and hair is all about people wanting to maintain their self-esteem and be themselves, and I listen to what that need is. Maybe it’s the bright red lipstick to lift their spirits or the head of hair so others treat them as they are - as themselves and not the patient. I hear about people’s lives, and I always give the time to understand them.”
It’s clear Leigh has a natural affinity with people, often supporting them through the difficult experience of cancer treatment. From an oncology perspective, these cancer patients often need wigs very quickly, as they lose their hair through chemotherapy treatment in just a few days to weeks.
“Some people are in denial about their hair loss. So, I’m always gentle and give them choice. Others are wanting to be very proactive, many weeks in advance of a treatment plan. There is no wrong approach. Both approaches work to gain the best control over a challenging period in people’s lives.”
“I have a motto: “If it’s not good enough for me, my mother, my sister, or my best friend, it’s not good enough for you.”
Some people have even said to Leigh that they will not continue with their cancer treatment if they can’t look like themselves with a normal head of hair. It is therefore a huge social responsibility that lands squarely on her shoulders. Her patients have the space to make good clinical decisions about their health by relaxing in a comfortable space, with discretion and privacy.
Leigh’s patients only have good things to say about her services. Many say that their experience with her was simply life changing. She recently received a photograph from a young woman heading to chemotherapy treatment sporting her new wig, who reported she was “stoked” with her new look. She also gets phone calls from family members and heartfelt letters of appreciation. She has even been described as a ‘godsend’ by the clinical staff she works alongside.
The connection with the Cancer Society continues to this day. Leigh regularly helps her patients to descramble the maze of access to wraparound services when they confide in her that they need additional help.
“The Cancer Society is the glue that holds everything together in the community, connecting the clinical sector to people in their own homes. It’s all about the people at a time when the health system is under immense pressure, alongside a rapidly ageing population. Cancer really does touch all of us.”
While Leigh prefers to stay out of the spotlight, it is said that often you don’t know she’s there until you need her! She has shared her story to encourage everyone to donate to the Cancer Society this Daffodil Day, Friday 25 August.
“I really don’t know what we’d do without the Cancer Society. Your donation on Daffodil Day provides the funds for these free services that really support us as a nation.”
Find out more or donate today, visit daffodilday.org.nz.