The Elephant in the Room is Cancer. Tea is the Relief Conversation Provides.

The Life and Death of My Career

by Stephanie MillettSurvivor, Breast CancerJanuary 26, 2023View more posts from Stephanie Millett

When I was 22, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. When I had first started attending college I really wanted to write, which is funny because in my 30s, it is now what I do. I kind of fell into hairdressing back then, but what I found in that decade-long career was the person I had always wanted to be. I was confident, I dressed how I wanted to dress, and I loved being behind the chair.

Then, I got cancer.

After completing 1,750 hours in beauty school, a full 12 months of advanced training at an academy ran by my first salon, and six months behind the chair after that, I was diagnosed with stage 3A breast cancer. Everything paused.

My managers at the time were incredibly gracious and understanding. They organized a lot of help for me while I was down and out, and continued to include me in meetings and other educational opportunities. After a full year of treatment and personal leave, I was able to come back to my guests and workplace.

Things were a little different after cancer, and I needed a change of pace. I decided to stretch my wings and land in another salon, and I really found my stride there. A couple of stylists from my other salon had ended up at this new place, and they had told me nothing but good things. I had goals of wanting to get a beautiful new car, get promoted to a senior stylist position, and buy a house (I accomplished all of those things shortly after my 31st birthday).

Everything changed after the COVID lockdown in 2020, and I’ll tell you why.

We had to close our doors for three months before we could attempt to open them again. Every hairstylist in America was trying to navigate the unemployment system. We were considered “non-essential” for the entirety of the COVID lockdown, and it changed the entire industry. Hairstylists got the green light to go back to work, and in some areas, especially California, they had to step away from their chairs multiple times.

The industry was never the same after the shutdown. I had a shot immune system because of my previous cancer treatment. I remember back in 2020 when little was still known about the spread of COVID-19, I refused to blow dry because of it. I was not willing to take the risk of my own health, or my loved ones health. I was met with so much push-back after we were okayed to blow dry again; my entire clientele suffered because of it. There was such a huge communication breakdown between me, my clients, and the receptionists of the salon, I ended up seeing my guests in other people’s chairs.

Then, my cancer came back.

Those sneaky little cells worked their way into my humerus bone, tricking me into thinking that I had a repetitive stress injury. I went to physical therapy, and my therapist wrote me a note to continue to cease blow drying after my managers had stripped me of most of my work behind the chair. There were countless meetings in the office and countless exercises for my deteriorating muscles. I couldn’t lift my right arm, but I couldn’t stop working. I had bills to pay and a kid to feed.

After barely surviving the lockdown and the loss of my job security, I was re-diagnosed this time with stage 4 breast cancer. It had spread to my bones. My right arm had fractured due to the spread, and I was blissfully unaware of what was happening inside my body. I had worked an entire 12-hour shift the day before they put me in a sling. One day I was laughing with my guests and co-workers, and the next I was in a sling in the back room, inputting color formulas for my guests, hoping they would receive the same service from other hairstylists that I had given them.

Two months after a very serious surgery that I very well could not have woken up from, I was let go from my job.

My family and medical leave had just ended, and I was looking at options to try to keep us afloat while I figured out what I was going to do. I had a life insurance policy that I was trying to get information on, and I was looking into my options when my HR manager emailed me to let me know I was no longer an employee with the company. She let me know that the door was always open if I wanted to come back.

And that was that.

Some of my best friends, people I have known for almost a decade, managers and colleagues, turned their backs on me. A salon I had called home for four long years had closed their doors on me. You hear about people ghosting other people during treatment, but is there a record for amount of people ghosting someone at a single time? I think I might have either set the record or broken it after that, because my entire friend group was gone. People who had lifted me up throughout the wildest parts of my career, who had celebrated birthdays, my kid’s birthdays, and everything in between, ghosted me like I was a bad Tinder date.

The funny thing to me, is that at the time, I could not ever see a point where I would get my arm strong enough to do hair again. I never thought I would even wiggle my fingers again. I went to physical therapy before I was even allowed to be let out of my sling. I re-learned how to dress myself, how to brush my teeth properly, and how to put on pants correctly again. I went from a predominantly left-handed life to a solidly ambidextrous life.

And now?

I can do hair again.

My wife, family, and close friends graciously allow me to do their hair, and they are incredibly supportive. I am a little slower than I used to be, but I know what I need, and I know how to set up my work station so that it works for me.

I didn’t fight to do hair again, though. I fought to live. I will no longer give my precious time away to a company or people that don’t and won’t support me. I would love to get behind the chair again, but only on my own terms, and only for me.

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