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Beauty Spa For Cancer Patients Wishes Business Was Bad

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In a perfect world, Calgary entrepreneur Saundra Shapiro would have to close her business, Compassionate Beauty, because her customers wouldn't need her services anymore. But as long as cancer ravages women's bodies, Shapiro's highly specialized salon/spa and store will rack up success after bittersweet success.

Launched in 2005, Compassionate Beauty offers women battling cancer and undergoing debilitating chemotherapy treatments three things ordinary salon/spas don't: a services menu tailored to their specific needs (head-shavings, mastectomy fittings); regular spa services (pedicures, manicures) customized to cancer-related sensitivities and administered using gentler products; and especially, a nurturing, safe environment where being bald is no big deal.

As Shapiro details on her shop's website, the genesis of the idea came when a client to her previous (also highly niche) business, toddler hair-cutting shop, Beaners Fun Cuts for Kids, revealed she had cancer and needed to shave her head. Shapiro did the deed in private after-hours, so the client could relax without enduring gawkers.

Shortly thereafter, a friend of Shapiro's also contracted cancer, similarly unearthing a void in the salon/spa industry. The spark was lit. Shapiro sold Beaners to found and focus on Compassionate Beauty where she estimates she's served some 5,500 clients since inception. ("Isn't that a frightening number," Shapiro asks. "Just a huge number through our doors.")

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Friends and Compassionate Beauty staff join client and cancer patient Susan Smed (in white t-shirt)

A two-year contract providing spa services to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America in 2009-2010 convinced Shapiro the need was universal; she is now looking to expand and franchise her Alberta-based business nationwide, starting in Vancouver and Toronto. The for-profit Compassionate Beauty is ironically poised as a growth business.

Samaritanmag: Did you look to any other business models when you were putting this together?

Saundra Shapiro: No. Because when that Beaners client first came in, my focus was entirely on hair. Then when my girlfriend got ill, we began talking about massage and incorporating a holistic approach to the body. So it just grew organically out of need.

Now it's evolved to include things like manual lymphatic drainage, which is what most women need after having any lymph node involvement after breast cancer surgery. And in fact about 85 per cent of our clients are battling breast cancer, which led to things like cosmetic tattooing of eyebrows or areolas following reconstruction.

Samaritanmag: Price-wise, the aesthetic services you offer -- waxing, facials, pedicures, etc. -- are comparable to regular salons. How do they differ?

Saundra Shapiro: Women going through treatments have issues and certain drug protocols affect their fingers, nails, their feet, and sensation -- they can't feel heat for example. And there are things they shouldn't be having done during treatment, which regular salons wouldn't know about.

For example, cancer patients having pedicures should never have the blade [a razor used to scrape off calluses], cuticles should never be cut. And different products might be too harsh. We use stuff free of parabens, non-carcinogens; we source products with the clients' specific needs in mind. And of course, the environment is a big difference. A woman having a pedicure can do so without wearing her wig. She can just comfortably hang out because that's the like environment she's in. Plus our staff -- and we have seven now -- are specially trained.

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Compassionate Beauty hair stylist Colleen MacDOnald Sanhiem with Peggy Gibennus, client turned employee

Samaritanmag: Have men come in seeking services?

Saundra Shapiro: Not really. We don't stop them at the door -- they are obviously great supporters and care-givers. But our guiding principal is offering women a safe environment where they don't feel like they have to be anything else but who they are at the time. Women need this place for themselves, especially when you add breast cancer to the mix -- clients trying on breast forms, bathing suits, bras. Plus, men don't struggle the same way women do with things like losing their hair. In the two years I was operating with the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, I think I did two toupees for men. So we would never turn a man away, but this place is really for women.

Samaritanmag: You auditioned for CBC reality TV show Dragon's Den earlier this year when it came to Calgary. Did your franchise idea come out of that?

Saundra Shapiro: No. I auditioned for the producers late in the season and we have not been called yet. But I am moving forward on the franchise idea anyway. I think it makes sense. And there are other ways to grow the business; there are so many things that are lacking and when people get a diagnosis they want as much information and as many resources as they can get. For example, we just offered a seminar with a nutritionist and a cancer coach that went very well.

Samaritanmag: Is the goal with your clients to stop patronizing your business once they get better, or do they continue to come back over and over, much the same way people do with a favourite hairdresser?

Saundra Shapiro: It depends. I certainly want a woman for the seven or eight months she's undergoing treatment when a regular hair stylist will be at a loss on caring for her. But then I want to send her back because that will mean she's finished with treatment and is back to normal. But we would expect to see clients come back for things like maintaining their lymphatic drainage or with specialty fittings of lingerie or swimwear.

Samaritanmag: Any key learning to share?

Saundra Shapiro: Being diagnosed with cancer is so expensive. Women suddenly have to buy wigs, new clothing and lingerie coupled with losing income during treatment. So I highly recommend that instead of sending flowers, people send gift certificates so women can access our products and services. It's critical. Friends, family and co-workers need to remember that we are not the casserole generation our parents were. Our first ad said, 'Unfortunately, we've opened.' I stand beside that in everything I do. I cannot wait to close this business down because there's a cure for cancer.

By: Kim Hughes, Samaritanmag.com

Samaritanmag.com is an online magazine covering the good deeds of individuals, charities and businesses.