The year was 2004. The summer Olympics drew thousands of athletes to Athens in a fight for the gold — and curl guru Ouidad learned that she won the emotional equivalent of the gold medal after her arduous fight with breast cancer. At last, she felt free.
The devastating diagnosis had come two years earlier. After undergoing major surgery, the author of "Curl Talk" and owner of New York's Ouidad Salon recalls the exact moment she learned she was cancer-free. Ouidad's husband was by her side. They were beyond thrilled, but little did they know how their joy would create an inspiring ripple effect in the curly community.
"It was an emotional time and it was a jubilant time between us because we were so excited and grateful." Ouidad says. "Then we started talking about how we wished the doctors and the information we have today was around in 1982."
That was the year Ouidad lost her mother to breast cancer, after being diagnosed with the disease just a few years earlier. She was 50. To honor her, Ouidad made two substantial donations every year to breast cancer research.
"I was very close to my mom, and it was a major loss to me," Ouidad says. "Then, I was diagnosed with breast cancer the same age as my mother was diagnosed, and it was emotionally overwhelming for me."
That overpowering feeling quickly morphed into strength and determination as she prepared for the fight of her life. Ouidad ultimately emerged victorious and has been cancer-free for four years. Although her personal struggle came to a joyous end in 2004, the family's crusade for others stricken with the disease was just getting started.
"My husband and business partner, Peter, said we have to do something that is more substantial [beyond personal donations]," Ouidad recalls.
"Once we found out that Ouidad was cancer-free, my mind took off," explains Peter Wise, her husband and business partner. "I thought, how do we change the future? My thoughts turned to my daughter and I knew we had to take action. Ouidad's mother died of breast cancer. Ouidad developed breast cancer. Because we have a daughter, we wanted to join in and find a cure for breast cancer."
The couple started by donating 50 percent of the proceeds from the sale of a pink limited-edition Ouidad Deep Treatment to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.
Peter Wise (second from left) and Ouidad presenting a check to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, one of many they have presented over years.
"We raised almost $60,000 with that alone," Ouidad says.
But Ouidad and her husband wanted to do more – much more. The following year, in 2005, they started their own foundation, Curls for a Cure. In partnership with the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, the money raised will support one researcher to help find a cure.
"It's not just about giving a piece of money," Ouidad says. "It's giving piece of mind knowing that someone is working with the money we're raising, which makes it much more tangible emotionally and spiritually."
Launched in 2005, Curls for a Cure is promoted year-round on Ouidad.com, where anyone (whether they are Ouidad's clients or not) can make a donation. To quickly up the ante, Ouidad also guarantees to match dollar for dollar — up to $50,000 a year — on all donations received through the program.
"Whether you donate a $1 or $8,000, we'll match it all," Ouidad says. "We need to raise money to create more research to make it even quicker to reach more people."
The ongoing fund-raising effort has reigned in nearly $170,000 in donations since its inception. Ouidad's goal is to raise a quarter of a million dollars.
"If we can meet that, it will be a phenomenal accomplishment," she says, "and then we keep on going!"
The couple chose to partner exclusively with the Breast Cancer Research Foundation because it puts the most money towards finding a cure, according to Wise.
"More than 90 cents of every dollar goes towards breast cancer research," Wise says. "Now we have our whole community of customers working with us and it's a fantastic thing!"
"We really feel like we're all working towards something," adds Ouidad. "I want the reality to be that if you get diagnosed with breast cancer, it will be like having a cold, you'll be fine."
Until then, Ouidad continues to reach out to other breast cancer survivors, whether it be to listen to her client's personal struggles or share her own — and then offer inspiration.
"After breast cancer, it reinforced my core [self] and made me more determined to help everyone I can," Ouidad says. "I'm not a material girl. I'm successful and can have anything I want, but I don't live a big life. When I'm gone, I want people to say she's the one who created the curly hair industry — and she's the one who helped her clients emotionally through a tough time in their lives."
Ouidad also found strength by overcoming her own tough time with the disease. Her outlook on life changed.
"I enjoy every single day. I enjoy every customer. I enjoy every story they share," Ouidad says. "I enjoy every little thing I do!"
Ouidad Offers Stress-Free Tips for a Healthy-hair Comeback
"Almost every woman, after losing their hair, when it grows back it's almost always the opposite texture from what her hair was," says Ouidad, a breast cancer survivor, author of CurlTalk, and owner of New York’s Ouidad Salon, the Curl Education Center. "It's because of the chemical reaction in your body from the treatments to kill the cancer."
If you had tight curls before treatment, they may come back looser or even straight, she says. If you had loose curls, they may come back as tight coils. But the change is often not permanent, and your hair usually returns to its previous curl pattern within a year to 18 months. As the hair grows back, there is more to think about than adjusting to the new texture.
Here, Ouidad shares five steps to healthy hair for breast cancer survivors.
"Some women get their hair back very gray, then when it falls out and their regular hair starts to come back, little by little the color comes back," Ouidad says. "So, try not to be anxious about it."
Remember, your curly locks will usually go back to their normal color and curl pattern after the effect of chemotherapy on the hair follicle wears off.
Conditioning is Critical
If you never really got around to staying consistent with conditioning treatments in the past, it's time to get diligent. Use a deep treatment every two weeks, in addition to your daily conditioner, Ouidad recommends.
"Even though it's new hair, it's not fully conditioned because internally you're still dealing with cleansing yourself of the chemicals [from the cancer treatments]," she says.
Hold off on Highlights/Color
"Don't start coloring your hair right away," Ouidad says. "Wait at least one year. You want the new hair to have substantial growth. Again, it's going to take a while as your body cleanses itself of the [treatment] chemicals."
Try Helpful Hair Accessories
While your hair is growing, you're grateful, but it's just never seems to come in as quickly as you'd like. For the in-between stage, you can show off the growth you have, as you accessorize.
"You can do so many things with accessories. You can go with extensions or beautiful scarves," Ouidad says.
Take the time to invest in a beautiful accessory, one that is special to you. Then, wear it in a creative way — and with pride!
Enjoy What You Have
Going through cancer treatments and losing your hair is a drastic and stressful time, so embrace the joy of being on the other side of it — even if your hair is different or grows exceptionally slow.
No matter the color, no matter how curly or straight, when it comes to your hair, Ouidad says: "Celebrate that it's back!"