Wendy Oren, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer last July, had to undergo chemotherapy and subsequently lost her hair. Yet rather than wearing a wig, the Edgerton, Wisconsin resident wears a chemo cap, which she finds more comfortable and cozier.
Interestingly, the caps are crocheted by Kurt Stapleton, a former inmate who was incarcerated for three and a half years on two counts of armed robbery. At the time, he was addicted to painkillers, had lost his job and decided to rob a pharmacy. In prison, he took up crochet, which helped him keep focused.
"What I do is I crochet hats for people who are going through chemotherapy," he says. "It makes me feel really good." Stapleton says that every stitch reminds him of how far he’s come.
"I have changed my life and have become a better person. I now have a 3-year-old son, who I am trying to lead by example," he adds. "In 2006, my father passed away from cancer. This is kind of my way of helping him, but helping others, because I wasn't able to do anything for him."
Hair loss is unfortunately a side effect of chemotherapy for cancer, though not all chemotherapy drugs have the same effect. Some medications almost always result in hair loss, whereas others cause marginal hair loss. Hair loss is very common during chemotherapy for breast cancer as well as other cancers, though some drugs and administration methods are more likely than others to affect hair follicles.
Stapleton works a full-time job from 5 am to 1 pm, and then crochets at home for several hours. He is able to finish a cap in about an hour and a half. He also makes stuffed animals, blankets and pillows. All of his caps are eventually donated. Though he hasn’t met Oren, their lives have been connected by a common thread.
"Kurt is definitely doing something that is very, very, very powerful," Oren says.
"I wish I could go back and tell the people that I've truly hurt that I'm sorry for what I've done," Stapleton says. "But I also wish they could see me and see what I'm doing with my life."
A number of prisons provide crochet programs for inmates. At the Auburn Correctional Facility in Auburn, a number of inmates attend meetings of the Veterans Group of Auburn, an organization that's been run for the past 31 years by prisoners who served in the military.
Some of the men participate in The Crochet Club making hats, scarves and blankets for those in need as well as for local hospitals. Last year, they made 1,301 items that were distributed at Christmas. The effort helps the inmates feel productive and like they are contributing to society. Hopefully, like Stapleton, they will continue to find fulfillment in serving others after their release.