The owners of one little beauty salon in Islip are helping cancer patients deal with the beastly effects of cancer treatments, and inspiring others to do the same.
It all began in 2003 when sisters Cynthia Sansone, now 56, and Rachel DeMolfetto, 53, started devoting one Monday a month to providing free care for cancer patients at their five-year-old business, Racine Salon & Spa. The concept was spawned years before, as they watched their mother, Mildred DeMolfetto, "a proud and glamorous double-process blonde," says Sansone, suffer at the hands of a salon worker who virtually shuddered when she saw chunks of the woman's hair in her sink. "Her hair was falling out like cotton candy being pulled off a cone," says Sansone. "I got her out of there so fast, but until her death she was depressed and reclusive."
Today, in a cheery, converted old house, people undergoing cancer treatments can take advantage of any number of services, from makeup and massage to having their heads shaved by specially trained technicians.
The sisters, small of stature with big, feisty, funny personalities, go into serious comforting mode when it comes to their clients. Annette Girani, 53, of Centereach, who has breast and colon cancer, noted the care they take when shaving her head. "They do it so delicately, so wonderfully, and they're holding your hand the whole time," she said. "They are the most amazing, sweetest women on Earth."
The story of the salon was documented in a 2012 HBO film, "Mondays at Racine," which captured the heart-wrenching physical and crippling emotional toll cancer takes on women. Oscar-nominated in 2013, the film didn't win, but news of the salon spread.
Now, "Mondays at Racine" happens virtually every Monday, thanks to nonprofit organization the sisters founded to accept donations. Sansone estimates that some 5,000 cancer patients have visited the salon to date.
On a September Monday, the place is jam-packed. Women of all ages arrive, some early on in their treatments, others bald and fighting, still others, joyfully finishing their last round of chemo. Clients must have a written doctor's clearance to receive the salon's services.
Sixty-something Madeline Fazio from Oakdale, who is battling breast cancer, had her head shaved a few weeks back. Today she's coming for a scalp treatment and a makeover that includes the application of long-wearing eyelashes and eyebrows using an all-natural product line developed by Sansone.
"It's much more than beauty. You feel like you're known and important and cared for," says Fazio, who looked a bit washed out upon arrival and leaves looking like a movie star, wearing her own short wig, makeup, fake lashes and eyebrows.
Breast cancer patient Carol Gilroy, 62, of Lindenhurst gets her wig styled and makeup, too. "It makes me feel a whole lot better. It's like a family here, and by the time you leave this place, you feel beautiful, revitalized and like you can get things done." She stops to chat with Michele Passarella, 43, of Bethpage, who also has breast cancer. Her last chemotherapy session is around the corner, so she is celebrating with a massage. Passarella's hair, a platinum blonde Mohawk, is of interest to Gilroy. "I love it. That's what I'm going to do," she tells Passarella.
While beauty might seem trivial in the fight for life, "the mirror is a powerful tool," says Sansone. Clients agree. "Rather than sitting in a chair to get chemo for four hours, you're getting pampered," said Renee Bologna, 47, of Hicksville, who, after having breast cancer was recently diagnosed with uterine cancer. "It's an amazing thing these ladies do, and it gives you a little oomph to push through."
Besides the day-to-day of the salon, Sansone and DeMolfetto are focused on implementing the Monday's model at salons everywhere. They've had some success with two more programs on Long Island, Salon Pop in Greenvale and the The Blue Sapphire Spa in Port Jefferson, along with a half-dozen others across the country. "It's fine for us to take care of these women when they're healthy," says Sansone, "but it is the salon industry's mandate to give back to the community and to take care of these people when they're sick."