46Mommas Shave It All Off to Fight Childhood Cancer

On July 29th, 46 women will be taking center stage at Hollywood and Highland in Hollywood, CA to raise awareness and funds and help work toward a cure for childhood cancer. And how? By shaving their heads.

 

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It’s called the “Shave for the Brave,” and all funds go to the St. Baldrick’s Foundation. This is the third year that 46Mommas.com has coordinated this event, with previous events being held in Los Angeles and Washington, DC. 46 women, all mothers of children who are either fighting cancer, have fought cancer and won, or who lost their battle, line up to shear off their locks in solidarity with their “kid cancer warriors.”

[img_assist|nid=308|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=179|height=200]Why 46? “Each weekday in the United States, 46 mothers are told that their child has cancer.” And “one out of every five children diagnosed with cancer dies.” The stats found here are saddening and alarming. Whereas most adult cancers can be attributed to “lifestyle factors such as smoking, diet, occupation, and other exposure to cancer-causing agents,” childhood cancer is hard to prevent, predict, or detect early on. It is also under-researched and under-funded by most cancer organizations.

“People just do not realize,” says Laurie Paganelli, shaving this year, “that Childhood Cancer gets less than 3% of the money from The American Cancer Society.” Most people simply aren’t aware of the lack of resources these children and their families have. “This of course affects research and lives that could’ve been saved. That’s why the money raised through the St. Baldrick’s organization & the Jordan Paganelli Sarcoma Foundation is so very important,” Laurie says, also referring to the yearly event she organizes in memory of her son, Jordan, who lost his battle with Rhabdomyosarcoma in 2009. “One of ways we have chosen to keep his memory alive is by hosting an annual event within the community that captures the essence of Jordan's 3 passions: Running, Music, and Friendship.”

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Laurie lost her son just before the first shave, but feels ready to fully join the mommas this year. “Jordan stood tall throughout his treatment and as his blessed Momma, and having a choice in the matter, because he didn’t… It is my duty and honor to shave for the brave.” That seems to be a resounding sentiment among these passionate women. “I would shave my head every day and be bald for the rest of my life if it meant that our kid cancer warriors got the time and attention and research that they deserve” says Monica Fochtman, who shaved last year for her son Luke, now cancer-free, and is one of the women coordinating the event this year. “I would shave my head every day if it meant that every child diagnosed survived. So, that makes it worth it.”

 

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Rebekah Ham, mother to Grace, who is thankfully in recovery, shaved both in 2010 and 2011. “I will not, however, be shaving up on stage this year, but working behind the scenes with the other leaders to pull it all together. The temptation to shave will be huge.” She has been part of this group since it was just an idea and feels that shaving sends a strong message. “Once Grace lost her hair, it became painfully clear to us that hair holds a ridiculous amount of significance in our culture. Having witnessed over and over how people would stare and point at my little bald daughter, I knew the public act of moms united to shave could have the impact needed to draw attention to the issues and inequities in the pediatric cancer world.”

And this is a big year for 46Mommas, the year they could hit their benchmark goal of one million dollars raised for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation. It’s considered the most promising organization for childhood cancer research and treatment support and 46Mommas has raised over $735,000 for them since the start. "After the federal government," Monica tells us, "St. Baldrick's funds more pediatric-specific research than any other organization or foundation."

“There is enormous trust involved with the process of starting a team like this,” Rebekah says. “The inaugural Mommas came from all over the US and represented the diversity that exists in the childhood cancer community. Very few of us knew each other, but we all had cancer in common, and we all understood that uniting in the fight would be the best way make a stand and inspire others to do the same. The incredible people at The St. Baldrick’s Foundation became an integral part of our team and help solidify our plans and direct our energies.”

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It’s a movement that grew by the internet equivalent of grassroots support, with many women becoming aware of these shaves through social media and cancer support forums. “I became aware of the mommas through a Facebook friend Heide Randall.Alyson Weissman  shaved in 2010 for her son Jared, now in remission, and is handling the on-site details for this year’s event. “Heide lost her daughter Jessica to a brain tumor and she was part of the original group that got the 2010 46 mommas going. When I found out the mommas would be shaving in L.A., I signed up to volunteer at the event and began to think of fun ways to welcome the mommas and help make the event more exciting and fun for them. As I approached my 46th birthday the mommas let us know they were short a few heads and I began to consider the idea of actually shaving at the event. It was scary and daunting and kind of overwhelming but it also felt incredibly right. On August 7th, my 46th birthday I joined as a shavee and that's when the fun really began!”

[img_assist|nid=322|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=200|height=150]“As soon as my son was diagnosed, as soon as we gained access to the internet, we began to search everything related to his diagnosis.,” Audra Wilford says. “As things progressed and when we returned home, post brain surgery, almost a month later, I started to search for more general information.  How many children are affected by this disease?  What are the stats, facts, and figures? The information I found blew me away. I had no idea!” Audra is shaving this year for her son Max, currently in treatment, and helping organize the event as she’s local to Los Angeles. She’s wanted to be part of it since she first heard of it. “The 46 Mommas popped up again and again, all over the web.  I remember thinking that these women are so brave.  What an amazing concept -- moms shaving to honor our courageous children.” She knew she wanted to be one of the “the 46 fiercest mommas in the nation!” When the call for mommas was put out, she was determined to be one. “If they'll have me, if I'm accepted for this amazing honor, I need to be a part of this incredible movement.  Then I saw the 2011 shave video from DC and I was sold. It's the least I can do!”

[img_assist|nid=313|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=200|height=133]The women who have shaved in the past feel a similar passion for these events. The shaves have become a deep shared experience for these women. “When I shaved my head,” Monica tells us, “I felt bold, powerful, empowered, beautiful, free. I felt that I had finally done something real, something tangible, something visible to help my son and other kids like him. I felt strong. I felt alive. I felt as if I could do anything. And, in many ways, I did, and the Mommas did.”

 

“The shave is like performance art that does good, presenting a powerful image of 46 bald women united for every family out there dealing with cancer,” Rebekah says of her first shave, when Grace was newly off treatment. “My braids were cut off and my head shaved, and the weight, both literal and figurative, was lifted. I was hooked. Never before had I felt so powerful and beautiful.”

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“The inaugural shave really felt like an adventure to me and something that people would never expect me to do. I really do love my hair so to consider shaving it all off and being that exposed was really tough,” Alyson shares. “There are really no words to describe the 10 event. I use words like spiritual and bliss and people look at me as if I have lost my mind. It was a perfect culmination of being around a group of women who finally got me and being bald and representing my son in a way that I could have never imagined possible. I was able to sit in the barber chair with my son gazing up at me and holding my hand and actually be fully present in my body and my head for the first time in 2 years. I had not felt such a sense of calm and happiness and acceptance since Jared was diagnosed and, during the few minutes it took to have my head shaved, I was just truly so fulfilled and filled with a sense of purpose and joy. I was so lucky to be surrounded by all my friends and family at the event and I know that made it even more special.”

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These women feel very strongly about making this statement, travel and any hardships involved aside. But what do their little warriors think about what they do? “At first, the bald look unsettled my daughters (Grace, now 10, and Fiona, 14),” Rebekah says, “but they understood the power of the haircut and quickly became accustomed to it. Grace loved being able to finger paint my head. Fiona even invited me to chaperone her middle school field trip while I was still newly bald. They both enjoyed rubbing the new growth. In 2011 in Union Station, Grace and Fiona were up on stage with me, wielding the clippers, shaving my head, and speaking into the microphone.”

“Jared was initially not thrilled when I told him I was shaving back in 10,” Alyson says. “Honestly he did not want me to do it and we had to sit down and talk for a long time for him to understand why it was so important for me to do so. He gets it now and tells me he is proud of me and the work I am doing in his honor.”

Monica Fochtman’s Luke was also less than enthusiastic at first. “I asked him if I could, if he wanted me to so I would look like him. He said no. Even at 3 years old, he was very wise. He knew that the chemotherapy made his hair fall out and he knew that he was getting chemotherapy because he had cancer. He didn't want me to shave my head or lose my hair in any way. My husband is bald (always has been) and so he and Luke were 'bald buddies' while Luke was in treatment,” she says. “In 2011, when I was filling out my Mommas application and talking with the boys about shaving my head (younger brother Connor is now 4; he was 10 months old when Luke was diagnosed) I talked to them about why shaving my head was so important to me, to our family, and to other kids. I talked a lot about the St. Baldrick's Foundation and that they fund research for kids and only kids. They knew that all the money I raised would go to help other kids like Luke, to help other kids survive. They agreed! We were actually at a St. B's event on April 21 (my birthday). We were asked to say a few words about our experience with childhood cancer. While there, Luke got inspired by all of the other participants and he shaved his head, too!”

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Audra’s Max is warming up to it as well. “Max wants me to have a mohawk.  He wants me to cut his hair, but not necessarily shave it.  My husband shaved in early April and Max wasn't initially happy about it.  We asked Max if he would shave too and he said no. He doesn't want people to think that he looks weird.  My husband responded, stating that's exactly why we're shaving because if everyone were to do it, no one would think it's different.  For our beautiful bald friends, we shave in solidarity, with love and for hope.  Max is starting to get that.”

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As for Laurie, “Throughout Jordan’s fight we had hope that a miracle in the way of treatments and Angels wrapping their healing wings around his withering body would save him. After losing a child, you no longer have that hope; it is taken with your child. At the shave I will not have my son smiling at me as they shave my almost 40-year-old head.  I will not have him to hug and hold post shave.  I will not hear the laughs and jokes he surely would have made.  But, the things I will have are a heart full of honor, love and admiration for him and the others. My son may not be with me physically on that day but he will most certainly be there in spirit and smiling down on us all.”

 

Here's hoping that this year's shave yields all the sisterhood, inner peace, and empowerment of previous shaves -- not to mention raising the awareness and donations sorely needed. "My only nervousness is in representing the kids and how desperate we, as families, are to get the word out about the lack of funding and treatment options," Laurie shares. Rebekah is extremely determined to get this word out. "Perhaps the greatest motivating factor for me was, and continues to be, that children need adults to advocate for them. They cannot advocate for themselves and who else is going to do it? For most people childhood cancer is too sad to think about, never mind advocate for."

With other cancers having a higher profile to the point of having a month dedicated to them, it makes one wonder why childhood cancer issues suffer from such a lack of general knowledge and advocacy. Whatever the reasons, these brave Mommas will shave on yearly, shearing their locks to honor and advocate for their children. "Pediatric cancer has yet to go away," Rebekah says, "and I am determined that the 46 Mommas will reach our million dollar goal for St. Baldrick’s. Awareness leads to funding which leads to research which leads to cures. With cures, the 46 Mommas won’t need to exist. Until then…  hair grows back, kids don’t."

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Thanks so much to the women quoted here and all the other Mommas for their bravery and tireless work. Aside from the links above, you can follow 46Mommas on Twitter here and like them on Facebook here. You can also donate directly to the 2012 shave here and see the class of 2012 here.

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