Health & Fitness

For some cancer patients, henna helps if hair is gone

Jeena Kar draws a henna crown on cancer patient Eudora Gibbs-Thomas last month at an oncology practice in Orlando, Fla. “It’s so pretty,” Gibbs-Thomas said. “It makes me feel very good.”
Jeena Kar draws a henna crown on cancer patient Eudora Gibbs-Thomas last month at an oncology practice in Orlando, Fla. “It’s so pretty,” Gibbs-Thomas said. “It makes me feel very good.” Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel

Henna artist Jeena Kar began drawing on Eudora Gibbs-Thomas’ bald head, swiftly gliding a small pink cone filled with natural henna paste to create half-circles, dots, lines and zigzags.

Before long, an intricate design began to take shape: a beautiful headdress, or a crown of sorts.

“I love it,” said Gibbs-Thomas, 77, who finished her second round of chemotherapy recently. “It’s so pretty. It makes me feel very good.”

Although less conventional than scarves, hats or sparkly stick-on decals, henna crowns are another way for survivors to express themselves and cope with hair loss.

“I get a lot of women that the first thing they ask is, ‘Am I going to lose my hair?’” said Dr. Sarah Katta, an oncologist at Southwest Cancer Center in Orlando, where Gibbs-Thomas met with Kar to get a henna crown. “It’s devastating for a woman because that’s what we associate beauty with.”

There are a handful of henna artists across the nation who draw “henna crowns.” A Canadian nonprofit called Henna Heals connects henna artists with people who have lost their hair. But the service is not common among providers in Florida because artists have to touch the patients, and that could bring up liability issues. Also, some are concerned about the safety of the product. “I wouldn’t recommend it to my patients if I weren’t comfortable with it and didn’t think it was safe,” said Katta.

Natural henna, not to be confused with the synthetic black henna, is a plant that grows in tropical regions of the world. The dried, crushed leaves are made into a paste and have been used since ancient times to dye hair, fabrics and skin. The designs can last as long as two or three weeks on the skin, depending on their exposure to the elements. In India “it’s done in celebrations usually,” said Kar as she drew Gibbs-Thomas’ crown. “It’s done on pregnant women and children and for women.”

Kar, 21, began drawing henna designs at a young age. It’s been a creative outlet for her. And “drawing the patterns is a meditative,” said Kar, who is now a pre-med senior at the University of Florida, majoring in religion.

She began working with cancer survivors only recently after a class assignment required her to combine her art with an aspect of health care. That opened a whole new world for her.

“It makes me feel my art matters and means something. I think it does something for the (survivors’) self-esteem,” said Kar. “It’s also having someone to spend time with you. It’s up close and personal. And it does have that touching aspect. I think just being present with someone makes a really big difference.”

It took Kar a while to find a provider open to her idea. Most cited liability and safety issues. But then she reached out to Katta, a family friend, who like Kar is familiar with henna through her Indian heritage. Kar has been to her practice twice to draw henna crowns or designs on patients’ hands for free.

“I hope in the future more physicians will be open to this, because it provides a way for patients to express themselves, as well as something that they could feel good about,” Katta said.

Gibbs-Thomas liked her crown enough to come back a second time.

“On my way here today, I said to my husband, ‘Before I get there, can you tell me if you liked it the first time? How did it look?’” she said. “And he said, ‘It looked very good. I liked it. It was very nice.’ And I said ‘OK. … I’m going again.’”