For cancer patients, a 'crown' of henna helps

Lesley Hughes was feeling great, keeping fit, eating well. She was also looking fantastic with long hair past her shoulder blades that had just reached that heavy, healthy weight.

The 41-year-old Saanich woman had discovered a small lump in her breast, but she was convinced the diagnosis would be negative. But one look at her doctor’s face in December told her it was breast cancer.

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Later, she heard “chemotherapy,” the one word she says is feared by all cancer patients, but perhaps women most of all. It meant she would lose her hair.

“It feels like a vain thing, but it’s there,” she said. “As a woman, it’s part of you. It’s your uniform. It’s your femininity.”

But on Friday, Hughes — lab technician, wife and mother of three children, six, 12, and 15 — decided to have a design imprinted on her head in henna, a natural plant product.

It’s a design created as a “crown” in the same way that Indian women have designs in henna imprinted on their hands and feet at their weddings. These designs are temporary, lasting about two weeks.

Royal Roads communications student Katherine O’Connor said they are a thing of beauty to bolster and even heal a woman going through a traumatic moment.

O’Connor said about 10 years ago she watched the mother of a close friend lose her hair during chemotherapy. It was the worst moment and left her feeling helpless.

Then she heard about Henna Heals, a Toronto effort to give henna crowns to women undergoing chemotherapy.

O’Connor said the idea sounded amazing. She saw it as a way to re-empower women who have lost perhaps the most visible symbol of womanhood by replacing the hair with something beautiful .

“It’s a way of turning it into a joyful expression of femininity,” O’Connor said. “And we want to make it as special as possible for Lesley.”

She enlisted the help of Angelique Bulosan, a woman with a background in art and design, to create the design. The Magnolia Hotel offered her the use of some space to showcase the process.

And she approached Hughes, after meeting her at the Canadian Cancer Society.

When Hughes was offered the chance at a henna crown, she had already gone through some tidewater moments with her hair.

When it started to fall out in clumps, she took matters into her own hands and shaved her head.

It was not exactly fighting back, but it felt somehow affirmative to be “taking her hair before the chemo does.”

She has also now finished her chemotherapy treatment and is in the midst of radiation therapy, so her hair has started to grow back but is still short enough for the henna process.

She also has a wig, which she is quite happy with, and some attractive head scarves.

She said the main thing is that she remains in control of her own womanhood despite the cancer diagnosis and the treatment.

“I won’t say it’s not scary,” she said. “But it’s do-able.

“The support is there, the resources are there, and the love is there,” said Hughes. “It’s a do-able fight; it really is.”

Those interested in learning more about henna designs and Henna Heals can email O’Connor at

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