Employee’s courage inspired by our cancer patients
Angelina was Shamsha Damani’s best friend for three years. A constant in the MD Anderson program director’s daily life, well-known to her large family and even some of her co-workers, Angelina wasn’t someone Damani met in school, a mentor at work or a beloved pet.
Angelina was her wig.
A new look
Just after starting her job at MD Anderson’sLyda Hill Cancer Prevention Center, Damani noticed that her hair was falling out at a rapid pace. She didn’t worry initially. She’d had autoimmune issues in the past, and it had always grown back.
This time was different. Within a month, she’d lost all of her hair on her head, even her eyebrows and eyelashes, due to an autoimmune disorder called alopecia.
“I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror, and it was really rough at first,” she says. “Whenever I looked at family photos, it was painful because I knew I’d never look like that again.”
There is currently no treatment or cure for alopecia, but her family’s support kept her moving forward and discovering how to live with her new condition. Her sister found the wig makers who created Angelina (named after actress Angelina Jolie); her son was the voice of positivity throughout everything.
“When I was upset about how I looked different from before my alopecia, he told me, ‘Mom, pretend you were born this way, and let’s make new memories for our photos,’ which was great advice, especially given he was 7 at the time,” she recalls.
Wanting to make a difference
When she was younger, Damani wanted to help find the cure for terrible diseases like cancer. So after earning a degree in biology, she was excited to start work in a research lab at the Baylor College of Medicine.
“I walked in my first day and had a terrible reaction,” she remembers. “I’m apparently very allergic to mouse dander, and since I was hired specifically to work with the mice, the lab had to rearrange to get me into a research role that didn’t involve them.”
She stayed in research for a few years before deciding she wasn’t interested in becoming a scientist. Her knowledge of medicine and diseases was put to use in her next role here, as a librarian in our Learning Center and then in our Research Medical Library. In every position, she liked how her work allowed her to make a difference to our patients.
After some changes at home, Damani decided to make a change at work as well, and went back to school full-time, earning her MBA from Rice University. Upon graduating, she wanted to try something new, so she set about trying to make a difference through a recycling and sustainability program.
“I had great experiences there, but it just wasn’t like working at MD Anderson,” she says. “I got back here as fast as I could.”
Inspired by our cancer patients
Still, Damani was growing self-conscious at work. She wore Angelina every day and was taking great care with her appearance, but she suspected she wasn’t fooling anyone.
“Can you tell I’m wearing a wig?” she thought. “Everyone can tell I’m wearing a wig!”
But coming to work at MD Anderson day after day helped put things into perspective for Damani.
“Our patients are such an inspiration to me,” she says. “Compared to what they have to go through for treatments, simply having a bald head is nothing.”
Damani decided to come clean to her co-workers last year. She wrote an email warning her colleagues that she’d look different the next Monday and was stunned at the outpouring of support she received when she showed up without her wig. She hasn’t worn Angelina to work since.
“Everyone was so incredibly kind to me,” she says. “It’s really opened up my relationships with my colleagues and created an environment where we can support each other even better.”
Feeling herself again
Coming to work without her wig has let Damani get more comfortable with her true self: She’s not hiding behind Angelina.
The only drawback? “Sometimes my head gets cold in conference rooms!” she says.
But she’s found she connects better with others through her alopecia. A bald head can be a conversation starter, and she’s learned that by making herself vulnerable, others feel more able to do the same.
“Everyone has scars they carry with them from their life, but some are more visible than others,” she says. “Mine’s obvious, and I use it as a way to help people when they want to talk but don’t know how.”
A longer version of this story originally appeared in Messenger, MD Anderson’s quarterly publication for employees, volunteers, retirees and their families.