For many women, losing their hair during cancer therapy is difficult enough. But the situation can be even harder for children who are shocked to see their mothers — or female relatives — lose their hair.
Now, a new doll tries to help kids understand the changes in appearance that come with chemotherapy.
The doll, called Kimmie Cares, was created by Kim Goebel while she was undergoing chemotherapy therapy for breast cancer. Goebel passed away in 2004, and her sister, Kris, now serves as the president of the Partners for a Cure Foundation, Inc.
Proceeds from the sale of the doll go to the foundation, which helps women undergoing cancer treatments with immediate financial assistance for child-care services or transportation during medical appointments.
The Kimmie Cares doll comes in five different ethnicities and includes a book, titled "Mommy and Me … Taking Care of Each Other." The book tells children that their mommies may become sick and look different, but that they still love them no matter what.
The book is published in English and Spanish versions, and additional languages are being printed, according to the company.
Cancer experts agree that a mother's physical changes can be difficult for little ones to understand.
"The most noticeable change in a woman's appearance is hair loss," said Lillie Shockney, a registered nurse and administrative director of the Breast Center at the Johns Hopkins Avon Foundation Breast Center. "In our society, hair loss often symbolizes having cancer."
And that symbol can scare children, who tend to focus on routine and may become anxious when a stable routine changes, as it would when a parent becomes seriously ill.
In addition to the new dolls, there are other ways women can help young ones cope with the changes that come with treatment.
Shockney suggests that women with breast cancer have a "coming out" party for their hair.
"Youngsters can engage with it, and make a funny hat for their mom," she said. "It's something to help them understand what is going on."
Michael Zevon, chairman of the psychosocial oncology department at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y., agrees that the focus should be on the process of adjusting to the physical changes of a family member.
"The doll is great. It's a sort of concrete aid in the process for younger kids who are keyed into doll play," he said.
Dolls have traditionally been a part of pediatric oncology care, as well as in other clinical settings, so it naturally follows that they can be helpful in smoothing kids' adjustment to a change in their mom's hair.
"This is a good tool, but it's only one part of the process of educating a child," Zevon said. "Parents have to seek an integrated way of adjusting, and not just focus on one discussion or event to help a child. It's all a work in progress."
Some children may be afraid that the changes they see in their moms will be transmitted to them.
"It's really important that kids understand that it's not going to happen to them; they can't catch cancer or hair loss," Shockney said. "It's also important for kids to know that the hair loss is temporary. The hair does grow back four to six weeks after chemotherapy ends."
She says that parents can embrace this time as a passing, not permanent, situation. "When we know that there's a beginning and an end to something, it makes it easier to deal with. It also helps kids to know that."
Zevon says that children, even young children, are incredibly perceptive and can sense when a family situation is changing.
"Parents may want to shelter them, but that's not the way to proceed," he said. "Children have an intuitive, natural wisdom and they will know when something is happening."
According to Shockney, families have to work together and use tools like the doll to make sure that the family can adjust to the new look.
"The situation is an opportunity to teach kids how to handle a crisis," she said. "Having a doll is a good idea because it's a safety zone for kids."
Find out more about the Kimmie Cares doll at http://www.kimmiecares.com.