Shaving off your crowning glory is one way of making a bold statement in raising awareness for a worthy cause.
But look closer into her watery eyes and sorrow-filled silences and you may realise that it is also but one of the many steps she takes towards healing a grieving heart.
Tau’ili’ili Alise Faulalo –Stunnenberg had always played with the idea of cutting her hair short but said that she could never find the willpower to let go of her vanity. This was until last week at the Cancer Society’s Shave or Dye it fundraiser at Taumeasina.
She was one of three women to go under the blade to raise money for the organisation’s outreach programmes. Speaking to the Weekend Observer, Tau’ili’ili said it wasn’t hard for her to reach her decision and that in many ways – it felt liberating.
“I don’t think I’m brave - if it made a difference then that’s great because that’s what it’s all about,” she said.
“I agree that here in Samoa it’s not common for women to do this because it’s part of our identity as a female but it didn’t feel like a big deal to me. However I might not have done it 20-30 years ago because I was probably too vain then,” she laughs.
Tau’ili’ili lost her sister to breast cancer almost three years ago and even though it has been some years, she cannot speak about her without her eyes welling up with tears at the thought of her absence.
“I’m not just doing this for those who are no longer with us,” she said. “I’m doing it for those who may still have a chance. I mean this year, we lost some great people,” she cries “and when I celebrate my 66th birthday in Holland this year, I said to myself that I can be bald if it can make a difference.”
She pledged $3000 when she first signed up for the Cancer society campaign and since then has now raised over $5000. She is grateful to those who contributed in support of her campaign.
At first Tau’ili’ili finds it hard to speak about her sister but in making a point about how important it was for the Samoa Cancer society to be able to continue its outreach programmes and improve palliative care, she revealed that the memories of the last three months of her sister’s life left her grief-stricken and bitter.
“I lost my sister three years ago. She was not fortunate enough to access some of the palliative care, in her case it was really a matter of timing. She was diagnosed in March; in fact it was on her birthday when she turned 60. They told her they were 99% sure that the lump on her breast that she had discovered two weeks prior was malignant so that was March and she died in June - it was so quick.”
Lack of communication and resources as well as being given false hope by the medical staff at the hospital led to a series of events that left Tau’ili’ili feeling helpless to help her sister and her niece and nephew.
“When I was told that there was nothing they could have done anyway and I lost it,” she said. “When I think that she could have spent that time with her children and she could have been given the right pain medication so she didn’t have to suffer. So I took her home and she passed away the next day.”
It was a difficult time for Tau’ili’ili and her family following the passing of her sister and she was deeply hurt and angry at the circumstances leading up to her death.
It was to take a while before she could again find peace and feel empowered again, starting with a renewed faith in the hospital during another crisis that hit her family last year.
“For a while I was very bitter,” she said. “But I think it was when my husband had a stroke at the hospital last year and a lot of things came to light. John was in the hospital for two weeks I noticed the doctors were magnificent - I couldn’t have asked for better care of John.”
Realizing that while she cannot change a diagnosis, Tau’ili’ili saw that she needed to focus on what was tangible to feel empowered again.
“I also noticed what the struggle is – the lack of resources, they would run out of things and it was no fault of theirs. Both human resources and equipment and supplies and I think that’s when I realized that I have to start focusing on what I could do to help. That’s behind one of the driving forces of what I do.”
Tau’ili’ili says that she is almost embarrassed when people call her a hero when they heard that she had shaved all her hair off to raise money and awareness for cancer.
“I was very embarrassed to be called a hero – I certainly did not feel like one because this was a choice for me. After the event a few days later, I put a thank you out to everybody who encouraged and supported me.
“A lady we know wrote to me saying ‘I lost my hair when I had chemo a few years ago and I felt like I had lost my identity - Thank you for making it look so beautiful.’ It overwhelmed me when people said they wanted to contribute.”
Grief has no timeline and it will be a long while before Tau’ili’ili can think of her sister without her heart breaking just a little.
She will however continue down this new path, in a world without her sister and loved ones lost, with hope in her stride and a bold, bald profile.
“It was awareness for me of the reality of the hospital and the health services - we blame the doctors, we got to blame somebody when we’re upset but when it really boils down to it, we all have a responsibility and that’s where this whole thing came out for me. Instead of living in anger and regret – why not participate in ways that make a difference.”