As a hairdresser for more than 30 years and a “very private person,” Gabriele Bauer, 50, had her life dramatically change when she was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, the most common type of breast cancer.
After fighting the disease, the mother of three started giving back to the community, using her hairdressing skills to help other cancer patients feel and look their best during their difficult path to recovery.
Ms. Bauer found out she had cancer after a routine mammogram screening in 2018. “When I first heard I had cancer, I was in shock. I was scared,” she recalls. “I had three kids; I am a young woman; I was working; for me it was like — this is it, this is the end.”
(Watch video: Hear from breast cancer patient Gabriele Bauer about her surgery, treatment and recovery, along with Joseph Colletta, M.D., a breast surgeon for Lynn Cancer Institute, and Darci McNally, director of Oncology Support Services & Community Outreach at Lynn Cancer Institute. Video by Alcyene Almeida Rodrigues.)
Joseph Colletta, M.D., a breast surgeon for Lynn Cancer Institute, explained that her type of breast cancer represents the vast majority of all breast cancers. Over time, invasive ductal carcinoma can spread to the lymph nodes and possibly to other areas of the body. Because of her young age, Ms. Bauer required an ultrasound, which found a second cancer in the same breast.
“She had what specialists call multifocal invasive ductal cancer of her right breast,” said Dr. Colletta. “Biologically, it was not that aggressive, which was a good sign for her. But it turned out that she did have involvement of the cancer in her axillary lymph nodes.” She had a locally advanced breast cancer and it involved several sites of her right breast.
Ms. Bauer also tested positive for BRCA2, a genetic mutation that elevates risk for developing breast cancer. This finding was critical in deciding which treatment to undergo.
“Gabriele had her surgery first, and because of the involvement of her lymph nodes, she underwent what we call bilateral nipple-sparing mastectomy with immediate breast reconstruction done by a plastic surgeon,” said Dr. Colletta. She also ended up having an axillary dissection to remove the malignant lymph nodes. “She had a very good result with that.”
Another reason why they decided to have her left breast done was because of the BRCA mutation. She was at a markedly elevated risk for developing breast cancer in the future, the surgeon said.
According to Dr. Colletta, she had a rough course after the operation because she needed chemotherapy and radiation to minimize the chance of the cancer returning locally and systemically in her body.
“The hardest part of my treatment and going through chemo – being a hairdresser and a very private person – was me losing hair,” said Ms. Bauer. She recalls feeling very alone and not wanting people to find out. At that time, she found a wig that was similar to her original hair, which she called Gigi, to help her feel better throughout her treatment. That led her to the Be U Tiful program at Lynn Cancer Institute.
Be U Tiful Program
“The Be U Tiful program is a specialized program to support patients on image and appearance,” explained Darci McNally, director of Oncology Support Services & Community Outreach at Lynn Cancer Institute. “We really play on the word beautiful, but really Be U (You),” she adds.
The program provides makeup, cosmetics, skin care, hair covering and wigs to patients going through treatment to help them feel like the best version of themselves.
“Being part of the Be U Tiful program is very comforting and rewarding, since I did not feel alone,” said Ms. Bauer. “We don’t even share also just make up and hair, we share each other’s journey, struggles we have. We all can kind of leave a little bit more comfortable after this program.”
As soon as Ms. Bauer was done with her treatment and feeling well, she decided to give back to the community through the Be U Tiful program. “I started to collect lightly used wigs from patients who’ve been through the chemo process and not in need of them to offer to patients complimentary.”
In her voluntary role, she helps cancer patients find their own color, style and hair-cut wig. She makes her own hair salon, Gabriele Coiffeur, available to participants at non-business hours to shave their heads, try on different wigs and teach them how to maintain the wigs.
“Community outreach programs that we have at the cancer center are optimal and have a lot to do with the positive outlook that the patients have in combating their malignancies,” said Dr. Colletta. “She’s gone through the whole nine yards and she took it like a trooper. She’s done it very well. She has a very optimistic attitude. Right from the beginning, she was going to combat this and conquer it.”
Ms. Bauer hopes that other cancer patients find the strength to defeat their diagnoses, like she did.
“I was scared. I was devastated,” she recalls. “I was allowed to do that, and then I turned a switch. The moment you turn the switch and you fight, you find strength that you never thought you had in yourself — and you are going to beat it.”