GEMMA Horsfield was just 22 years old when she was given some terrible news – she would probably be dead within seven years.
Doctors had found an aggressive brain tumour in her head, and they needed to operate quick to get it out.
But because of the placement of the tumour, surgeons could not remove the whole mass.
The specialists wanted to try radiotherapy, but Gemma, who lives with her mum Christine in Gleadless, Sheffield, initially refused to go ahead with the treatment.
“They wanted to use radiotherapy to get the bit of the tumour they could not remove,” said Gemma, now aged 24.
“But they told me all my hair would come out and there was a risk it might never grow back.
“That scared the hell out of me.
“I had long blonde hair, right down to the middle of my back.
“It was the one thing I really loved about myself, and I couldn’t face losing it.
“So I decided not to go ahead with the radiotherapy.”
It was a drastic decision and Gemma’s family had something to say about it.
They knew radiotherapy was her one chance of survival and bombarded the young woman with pleas to go ahead with the treatment.
Gemma said: “I couldn’t bear what they were saying, so eventually I gave in and agreed to have the radiotherapy.”
She underwent six weeks of the treatment, which finished just over year ago.
But then the thing Gemma so dreaded happened.
“I was brushing my hair and a big patch came out,” she said. “It was really hard.”
Gemma consulted her hairdresser Conrad Blandford, who runs a salon on Ecclesall Road.
Fortunately, Conrad, 34, is something of an expert on helping women with cancer.
Since his first client started losing her hair a few years ago, Conrad has built a reputation for his skills at making sick women feel human again.
“We decided the only thing we could do was cut Gemma’s hair really short,” he told The Star.
“But it was heartbreaking. She had lovely, beautiful long blonde hair, and I had tears in my eyes when I was cutting it.”
Over the next few weeks Gemma lost all her hair.
The NHS provided a wig, but Conrad took the ill-fitting, uncomfortable item, and adjusted it to suit Gemma’s style.
Then, as Gemma’s tumour had not come back, and the radiotherapy seemed to have worked, Conrad decided on a long-term plan for Gemma to be able to live without wearing a wig.
“The main thing with Gemma was trying to get her hair to grow back,” he said.
“When someone has radiotherapy or chemotherapy the body concentrates the proteins on helping the body – it gives up on the hair.
“So we have to replace the proteins and glucose, and you do that with special shampoo and other treatments.”
Since Gemma started with Conrad’s treatment her hair has completely grown back on one side, leaving one small bald patch on the other side.
She is now confident enough to walk around in public without her wig.
Gemma works for Citizenship First, a non-profit company helping disabled people manage their money.
She said: “When my hair first fell out I went to Meadowhall with my mum and I couldn’t even get out of the car.
“Now I have definitely got my confidence back.
“At first they said I had seven years to live – whether that’s going to happen I don’t know.
“I’m just going from check-up to check-up. If I’m going to die I want to enjoy my time while I have got it,” she said.
Conrad thinks there are many more people like Gemma who could benefit from his help.
“Many people are more worried about losing their hair than the actual operations,” he said.
“We are treating about 25 to 30 women a month at the moment, but I think that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
“We help people come to terms with losing their hair and tell them what action they can take – whether it’s cutting their hair differently or getting a wig to fit them and to look good.
“It’s about making them look like who they are – so they can walk down the street feeling like a normal person.”
Conrad Blandford runs a salon at 309-311 Ecclesall Road, with a private room for his hair regeneration service.
He offers a subsidised service to cancer victims, starting at £10 for a wig trim.
His service varies from maintaining the look of full head of hair if it is thinning, to sourcing and styling wigs, to working on hair regeneration.
Conrad runs regular information evenings about his service.
For details log-on to www.conradblandfordhairdressing.com, call 0114 266 66 46 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.