The room is a lovely shade of light pink, with a large, carved-wood bed in the center and a tall window framed by pink striped drapes. Numerous table lamps swathe the room in a warm glow.
It’s a woman’s room, no doubt about it – but instead of housing a suitcase and some sundries, it’s chock full of hats and wigs of every imaginable color and style. This is the place that The Hat Trader has called home for 10 years, one lovely bedroom in the home of breast cancer survivor and Williamsburg resident Suzi Williamson.
“Hats just made me feel better after I went through chemo,” Suzi says about her ordeal 12 years ago. “I had four wigs and tons of hats, and what was I going to do with them when my hair finally came back?”
She decided to share her hats and wigs with other post-chemo women who might need them – and somehow, the whole idea snowballed into The Hat Trader’s current stockpile of over 800 hats and 500 wigs. “And when the women finally come back to return the items, they usually bring even more stuff to share,” Suzi says, pointing to a new pile of donations in the closet that haven’t been cataloged yet.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of women in the area who come seeking Suzi’s help, advice and comfort after finding out that they’ll be going through chemotherapy. That word can lead right to panic, because most of us know a little bit about what getting chemo means: dragging yourself to a hospital or clinic for weeks or months of drug therapy that will make you feel sicker, sadder, and more alone than you ever thought you could. And that’s just if it works.
Then there’s the reality of what it does to your body after you’ve finished – the cancer cells might be gone, but so are some parts of you that you always took for granted. Your healthy-looking complexion, your energy, and most times, your hair, they’ve all disappeared for a while and left you feeling naked.
For women, this is one of the places where our femininity is on prominent display, our short, spunky ’do, our soft and bouncing curls, our long and flowing hair that the husband likes to run his hands through or the kids like to snuggle into. We might be left to wonder, how will they know I’m still me, still a woman?
“Some of the women I see are really feeling distressed,” Suzi says. “You look in the mirror and say, ‘that’s not me, that strange looking person’. My husband sometimes joked and called me ‘E.T.’… you just have to laugh sometimes. It gets you through.”
When you ask her, though, if she’d suggest chemo to another woman facing the decision (in her non-professional opinion), Suzi will tell you “someone asks me and I’d tell them take the chemo – take the strongest meds your body can stand – because cancer is a beast.”
So there you are in Suzi’s room, maybe with your husband or your teen-age daughter, and everyone’s working hard to put on a brave face while you see all the wigs and hats spread around you that you’d normally think were beautiful, but just now they’re pretty scary. You take off the baseball cap you’re wearing and sit down in front of the pretty vanity with two or three well-made wigs near you that best match your old color and cut (because you want your three-year-old to recognize you and not think there’s anything wrong with mommy), and Suzi puts her hand on your shoulder and starts talking.
Right then you’d see in her eyes reflected in the mirror that you aren’t alone, that here is a woman who knows what you’re going through and has made it through to the other side, and that even though you might think you look horrible really what you look like in her estimation is a hero who has come through the battle with a wound that will heal itself, in time. You might cry, or maybe your daughter will, but in a year or so you’ll be returning your hats and wigs to this same room, your new hair framing your healthy-looking face, ready to pass on some more supplies to someone else.
Suzi sees more and more younger women in her pink room. Some call before they begin chemo and some wait until the hair is gone. Some come with a brave smile and some with tears, but more are coming all the time. “I might need to make a 10-hat limit,” she thinks out loud as she describes the growing number of women who have found The Hat Trader.
Women now come from Newport News and Gloucester, Richmond and West Point, as well as those from the historic triangle. While she has a few friends helping out, she does this mostly on her own – but she’s quick to say, “Don’t make this story about me. It’s not about me, it’s about The Hat Trader and the women that it helps.” It’s about how we can use our hard times, turn them around, and make them work for someone else.
For more information or to give her a hand, call Suzi at 258-5628.