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Breast Cancer Awareness Month: Natives Donate Locks for Wigs at Pechanga Spa

[node:summary]Pechanga Resort & Casino's spa in California is giving free haircuts to people donating to wigs to honor Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Amber Curatola has had long, thick, black hair nearly all her life.

“The longest it’s been is down to my knees,” said the 33-year-old Comanche, who lives in San Gabriel, California, with her three young children. “It’s part of my heritage to have long hair. My grandma, my aunts, my mom... they have all had long hair, too. It’s a tradition.”

But it’s a tradition that Curatola recently parted with. In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which starts today, Curatola—whose thick hair took four hours to dry and fell just past her derriere—opted to cut her cascading mane and donate her lovely locks to help make wigs for women undergoing cancer treatment.

“I’m a single mom who works full time and struggles,” she told Indian Country Today Media Network just before her trip to the salon. “I don’t have the means to donate money. But my hair is special to me, and I value it. So I am just going to give the gift of my own hair.”

Curatola is taking part in a month-long hair donation campaign hosted by Spa Pechanga at Pechanga Resort & Casino in Temecula, California, where she works in guest services as a VIP host. The spa, an enterprise of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, is offering free haircuts and styles to men and women whose hair is eight or more inches long. All collected ponytails will be donated to HairUWear, an organization that fashions them into wigs that are then donated to female patients through American Cancer Society wig banks.

“We are so excited to be able to do our part to help this very important cause,” Spa Pechanga manager Gina Layland said in a statement. “There are so many women across the country who can be helped by the kindness of a stranger donating their locks. We hope we can help at least a few ladies going through cancer treatment to feel as beautiful on the outside as they are on the inside.” 

For Curatola, cancer has hit very close to home–twice. For one, her aunt has been battling liver cancer for more than five years.

“To see her transition from being healthy to being sick to losing all her hair —she had long hair, like me—was heartbreaking,” Curatola said.

And as if that weren’t enough hardship for one family, Curatola’s 32-year-old cousin, a mother of two young children, has been diagnosed with terminal breast cancer and been told by her doctor to “prepare herself.”

“She found a lump in her breast and ignored it for a year. When she finally went to see the doctor, it was too late. It had spread to her bones,” said Curatola.

Unfortunately Curatola’s cousin is not alone. According to Breastcancer.org, about one in eight U.S. women will develop invasive breast cancer over their lifetime. Although death rates have been decreasing since 1989, more than 40,000 women in the U.S. are expected to die from it this year. The ethnic group most likely to die from breast cancer is African-American women; ethnicities with the lowest risk of breast cancer deaths are Asian, Hispanic and Native American women.

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However, that statistic was of little comfort to Mohawk Joanne Prince, a 55-year-old executive host at Pechanga Resort & Casino who works with Curatola and nearly died of complications from the disease last year. Prince had a double mastectomy to remove a three-centimeter tumor. When Prince started losing her hair in chunks from chemotherapy treatments, she wanted to make sure she didn’t frighten her beloved 6-year-old grandson, “my little buddy and best friend.” So she bought some pizzas and invited the neighborhood kids over to help cut off her hair. 

“We just made a party out of it,” she said.

This brave spirit is what inspired Curatola to cut off her own locks. While Prince would wear a wig out on the floor in the casino, she often took it off behind the scenes in the office to cool her bald head.

Photo: Courtesy Pechanga Resort & Casino Spa

Curatola displays her shorn locks, in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

“People would walk by and laugh because my hair was hanging on a hook by my desk. But they got used to it,” Prince said.

Curatola was amazed. 

“It showed me how much courage she had,” the single mom said. “She is a wonderful, wonderful woman. It’s just amazing to see her then and now. It’s so inspiring how she lives life.”

On the last day of September, the day before the official kickoff of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the Comanche woman whose identity and heritage, like delicate life strands, are woven into her jet-black hair, walked bravely into Pechanga Spa and granted permission to a stylist to cut off 16 inches of her gorgeous mane. Although the hair will not go directly to a wig for Prince, Curatola’s friend and co-worker was touched by the gesture.

“Amber has done a very noble thing, and I am honored,” Prince said.

Lynn Armitage is a freelance writer in Northern California and an enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin.