Weak and exhausted, each time she lifted her head from the pillow, Andrene Taylor left behind a large patch of hair. After quietly battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma for eight years starting at age twenty-four, Andrene was suddenly and drastically confronted with the cancer she’d kept hidden from the world. After just three days of chemotherapy in 2012, Andrene began to look like a cancer patient as 5 years of natural hair growth began to shed. There on her pillow, shirt, and chair back was the most visible reminder of her illness. On the fifth day, realizing her hair could not be salvaged, Andrene had to shave her head.
It was that startling physical transformation that made cancer real for Andrene and many other Black women living with cancer. Before the hair loss, Andrene had attempted to maintain any semblance of normalcy, even going straight to class after a bone marrow biopsy as if nothing was amiss. Now, cancer had taken a part of her identity, her hair, and claimed it for its own. Cancer forced her to bend to its will and admit to the world and herself that she was, in fact, yet another cancer patient. Devastated and in tears, at her most vulnerable moment, Andrene picked up the phone and called her hairdresser.
Through this experience that reinforced how Black women’s hair is tied to our health and well-being, ZuriWorks was born. The Black salon and hairdresser have been an integral part of providing a safe, comfortable, and nurturing environment for Black women to discuss their issues and concerns. However, even though cancer is the #1 killer of Black women age 34-44, cultural taboos and misconceptions have prevented us from talking openly about the disease. Black women have a 41% higher death rate from breast cancer than white women, due in part to late diagnosis and a lack of access to quality health care. Yet, at a national level, the discussion about cancer is already much more advanced in other communities while many Black women can’t even get beyond the threshold of getting screened.
Many of those who have been diagnosed have suffer silently or avoid aggressive treatments due to the misconception that cancer is inevitably terminal. One particular hairdresser said, “My grandmother had cancer, my 5 aunts had breast cancer. Everyone knew and no one talked about it. There was still a lot of shame associated with the disease.” ZuriWorks seeks to combat those misconceptions and taboos that make cancer an unnecessary silent killer for Black women by putting Black faces at the forefront of survival and overcoming cancer.
ZuriWorks is using hair as a launching pad to have a much wider discussion amongst Black women about our identities, bodies, and health. Taylor seeks to unite the health, beauty, and arts industries to save Black women’s lives from cancer by promoting early detection, screening, and cancer survivorship—all the areas where Black women have been underrepresented. Last year they hosted “It Will Grow Back," an event to recreate the safe space of a Black hair salon in order to allow survivors to share their experience.
Today, Zuriworks is launching Big Chop to Stop Cancer, a national campaign is to promote cancer screening and early detection through the most visible and dramatic act of transformation a woman can undergo: cutting her hair. Historically Black women’s hair has been viewed as a political, cultural, and social statement, often without our consent. Joining the campaign to big chop empowers Black women of all hair textures and our allies to reclaim our hair and the statement it makes in solidarity with our mothers, daughters, sisters and friends who are battling cancer.
Johnny Wright, stylist to First Lady Michelle Obama, and other leaders from the beauty and hair care industry will launch the campaign at the Immortal Beloved Salon in Washington, D.C. by providing “big chops." Individuals, stylists, and salons around the country can participate by going on zuriworks.org to get an informational packet, uploading pictures to the Zuriworks’ Facebook site, and using the hashtag #chopcancer.
As cancer disproportionately devastates the Black community, it is time for Black women to push to the forefront of the discussion and provide our community with information that can save lives. Here's to hoping Taylor's Big Chop is just the beginning.