A hair dresser for four decades, Cindy Kuhl always treated her clients suffering from cancer with a special touch, especially when the dreaded moment came to shave their heads.
It wasn’t until last year — deep in her own cancer battle— that the Bloomfield woman truly understood the emotions her friends felt as they held clumps of hair from their pillows and then saw it lying on the floor after the rest was shaved.
“I’ve done that so many times, but when it’s your own, it’s different,” Kuhl said. “Now, I know how they feel.”
Thursday marked Kuhl’s first day back to work in nearly two years, and she didn’t dare attempt to hide her excitement.
“Today’s the day,” she said as a smile beamed across her face. “I still have cancer. They don’t have a cure for this one, so I’m not in remission. I’ll always have cancer, but my doctors said I can come back now.”
The Hair Hut has been an institution along Broadway Street since Kuhl returned to her hometown in 1980. But in the fall of 2016, Kuhl was forced to close her doors after she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer related to lymphoma and leukemia that starts in the bone marrow and often attacks bones.
It was October 2016 when Kuhl suffered a broken pelvis that eventually led to her diagnosis. Being stubborn, Kuhl, who lives near Santee along the Missouri River, didn’t bother going to the doctor for her injury for two weeks and wasn’t aware of the cancer until the following month.
“It was a couple weeks before the election. I remember it because my husband was going on a hunting trip to Montana,” Kuhl recalled.
She was in the pantry of her home when she pulled out the bottom shelf and grabbed a bag of flour. Kuhl shifted her weight and felt her pelvis snap. With her husband, Tom Bartak, gone, she continued taking care of the yard, animals and her shop until he returned. He was shocked she hadn’t been to the doctor yet, so the next day, she finally went.
Her suspicions were correct: It was a broken pelvis. But the X-ray showed much more than that, much more than she expected.
“They saw spots and tumors on the bone,” she said. “They could see where I’d had broken ribs, too. I had complained over the summer about it being hard to breathe, but I blamed stiff muscles. I didn’t know it was cancer.”
Kuhl said doctors found lesions down her spine and on her shoulder blades. She had nearly two dozen more down her skull, silently attacking her body.
It wasn’t long before Kuhl started radiation treatment and taking medication to strengthen her bones. Between the chemotherapy shots, steroids and medications, her body was flooded with ways to fight the cancer.
In April 2017, it was time for a bone marrow transplant. A couple of days after her cells were replaced, the sickness set in and her long, flowing hair started to fall out.
“It came out in handfuls,” said Kuhl as she ran her hands through her now short hair. “So my husband brought the clippers. He cut it and shaved it. It was probably harder on him than me.”
Kuhl said she always set private time aside for her clients when she shaved their heads and encouraged them to bring a friend or loved one. She knew it was supposed to tingle and hurt when the follicles died and warned her clients what it would feel like.
But now, she was feeling it for herself. What she didn’t know was how it would feel inside to have it shaved.
“It was actually a relief,” she said. “It did tingle and hurt, so I was glad to have it gone.”
Kuhl spent the next 18 months recovering. She said Tom was by her side for every treatment and every doctor appointment.
“He was there for everything,” she said. “I don’t know what I would have done without him.”
Kuhl was finally cleared to return to work recently, although she’ll be very careful with the flu season nearing. Although Kuhl donated much of her supplies to Bright Horizons in Norfolk when she closed her shop, she’s now restocked and back in business as of late last week.
The best medicine, she said, may actually be returning to work and seeing familiar faces.
“I missed it,” she admitted. “When you’re with people, they become family. Certain people came in for standing appointments, so those time slots are tough if they’ve passed since I was here last. I’m so glad to be back.”