Chemo Dolls Bring Comfort in Midst of Cancer

Thursday, August 15, 2019 - 11:49am

Moms worry about their kids. It’s pretty much part of the job description. So when 36-year-old Deana Welch was diagnosed with breast cancer while 34 weeks pregnant with her fourth child, her concern was as much about her children’s well-being as it was about her own health. “My biggest concern was how to tell my kids and how to help them process what I would be going through,” recalls Deana.

The first step, before treatment could begin, was a C-section. Baby Marcy was delivered at a healthy 5.5 pounds with no complications. Once Deana had healed from her surgery, she and husband, Mike, began to plan for her chemotherapy treatments and worried how to prepare their other children, Aubrey, 7, Bobby, 6, and Joey, 2, for the changes they’d see in their mom. “We learned a lot at Roswell’s Resource Center about how to talk with our children about cancer, such as avoiding using the C-word and telling them I had a 'boo-boo' and would have to take medicine that would make me bald, like their dad. But I was still very anxious about how they would react to my hair loss, especially for Aubrey, our oldest daughter, who has Down syndrome.”

To help her children prepare, Deana cut her hair in stages, first to a short bob, then a pixie and finally shaving her head. “I was very anxious, but when I came home wearing a wig, instead of being upset, my kids told me they wanted to see my bald head and told me I looked pretty!”

Even with the initial support, Deana was still worried about Aubrey’s reaction. So, when she was offered a chemo rag doll, Deana was thrilled. “These big beautiful rag dolls are incredible. They are bald, without eyebrows or eyelashes, and come in a beautiful kit with a wig, hat, cap and clothes. The doll we were gifted is named Joy. When we showed her to Aubrey, she was delighted and said, 'Oh my gosh, she’s bald like you! And she has a wig like you!'”

Having a way to help her children with reactions to her own hair loss has been enormously comforting to Deana. “My daughter will play with Joy, and the wig and hats. The doll has helped make my changes seem totally normal because this is our normal right now.”

The rag dolls are the brainchild of an automotive engineer from Lockport, a breast cancer survivor now seven years cancer-free. “I had a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation, and I learned what it’s like when people see you without hair, eyebrows or eyelashes," she says. "I’ve always had a love for dolls and one day while I was putting on makeup, I looked over at the Raggedy Ann doll in my room and I swear, that doll looked at me and said, 'You know, I would be just as cute if I didn’t have eyebrows or eyelashes.'" The donor (who has asked to remain anonymous) was inspired by her experience to create a “chemo rag doll,” that reflected the hair-loss side effect of chemotherapy treatment. Her doll idea grew into a kit that included a wig, chemo beanie, sleep cap, pajamas, hospital gown and blanket, as well as a picture book describing in simple terms what the doll was experiencing during treatment.

“It can be scary for a child to try to picture what’s going to happen during treatment, so I designed a book using photographs of the doll and other toys to tell the story.” The dolls are all 24 inches tall, with large, happy smiles, “I Love You” hearts, a neck port and names like Hope, Joy and Faith. Friends and colleagues were quick to volunteer their help. Over seven years, they’ve completed 24 kits and have 12 more in production. The dolls are crafted slowly with bright, coordinating fabrics and a lot of love. One friend does all the crochet work, creating colorful hats and wigs. Other friends help cut fabric, iron and sew the hospital gowns and pajamas.

“The response has been incredible,” says Carol Nottingham, Coordinator of Roswell Park’s Resource Center for Patients and Families. “We see parents shed a layer of worry when they are able to give their children emotional support. These dolls and books help them do that.” The Resource Center is looking for ways to expand the chemo dolls program to make more books and kits available.

For Deana and her family, having Joy at home continues to help keep things normal. “There’s still this stigma when people see you wearing a chemo beanie,” says Deana. “The doll helps our family feel normal about what’s happening. It’s a brilliant idea — these dolls really speak to what children need. I am very grateful for the comfort that has come with this beautiful gift.”

For information about resources and support, visit Roswell Park’s Resource Center for Patients and Families.

Editor’s Note: Cancer patient outcomes and experiences may vary, even for those with the same type of cancer. An individual patient’s story should not be used as a prediction of how another patient will respond to treatment. Roswell Park is transparent about the survival rates of our patients as compared to national standards, and provides this information, when available, within the cancer type sections of this website.