Cynthia Sansone watched her mother Mildred (nicknamed Carmella) battle cancer throughout the 1980s. She saw how uncomfortable people got when her mother told them she had breast cancer, recalling that it was if she had done something wrong. Sansone remembers taking her to a local salon one day, when she was ready to shave her hair, and seeing the stylist gasp.
“I just saw her body language,” Sansone said. “My mother felt it too. I pulled her out of there. I never forgot that moment.”
Mildred “Carmella” died of breast cancer in 1988. About 15 years after her darkest hours, Sansone decided to become a bright spot for others. She and her sisters, Rachel DeMolfetto, Karla Waldron and Rosemary Berger, began giving free hair cuts and beauty treatments to cancer patients one Monday a month at their salon Racine Salon & Spa in Islip. It was a way to help people attend to the whole self, something that often gets lost during cancer treatment.
“The mirror is a powerful tool. Who better than your salon to help you with your skin, hair, nails, body, mind and spirit?”
And who better to tell a full-circle story of tragedy and kindness than Hollywood? In 2012, Cynthia Wade released a short documentary film about the salon’s efforts. Mondays at Racine went on to get nominated for an Academy Award. Suddenly, the local program, which wasn’t even registered as an official non-profit, was in the national spotlight. People wanted to know how they could help. Other salons wanted to offer the program.
Today, the salon runs the program, now dubbed Mondays with Racine in honor of the game-changing film, three Mondays per month and also offers massages, yoga and meditation. There are about a dozen charter programs around the country, including MAIA Salon Spa and Wellness in Smithtown, which holds Mondays at Racine on Tuesdays. She hopes to one day move Racine into a larger building to accommodate patients seven days per week and open salons in Chicago, California and Florida.
“We know we have turned on a switch for the beauty industry to really get involved.”
Though expanding, the program still largely centers around intimate, personal moments and conversations like holding someone’s hand as her head is shaved or telling her how beautiful she looks in her new wig.
“I’m on the frontline [helping] people feel connected again and not like an alien. You feel like you have a scarlet letter on your back because you have cancer and no hair.”
Safe to say Mildred “Carmella” would be proud.
“[My mother] would always say, ‘Make your mark. Have the guts to stand up for something.’ She was very passionate that way. I think she would be thrilled that her girls did something with their lives, that they have a purpose.”