On a frosty winter day in Frederick, Maryland, Fernando Trujillo did something he hadn’t done in six years: walk into a barber shop and get his hair cut.
But it wasn’t the end of the journey for his waist-length hair, 28 inches in all, which he donated to a charity so it could become part of a wig for a cancer patient.
“Once you become part of the cancer crowd, you tend to take little more focus on people who’ve had to go through that,” Trujillo, 49, told TODAY.
“I figured it would be a good way to help them out … It’s a scary experience to be told that you’ve been diagnosed with any kind of cancer.”
The veteran, who spent 24 years in the U.S. Navy, received his own diagnosis in 2012. While going for a run, he felt a little bump on the roof of his mouth and thought it was odd. He made an appointment with his dentist, who sent him to an oral and maxillofacial doctor for a biopsy.
It turned out to be a cancerous tumor — salivary gland cancer, a rare type of head and neck cancer. Exposure to toxins in the workplace is one of the risk factors and Trujillo suspected welding fumes from ships that went through overhauls during his time at the Navy could have contributed to his illness.
Surgeons removed the tumor and a gumball size piece of skin around the cancerous cells. Trujillo had to wear a mouth guard that was sewn into his gums to help the area heal.
“I was drinking mostly protein shakes, a lot of pumpkin soup and stuff like that. During that time frame, I dropped 20 pounds within a month,” he recalled.
But he didn’t have to go through chemotherapy or radiation, and biopsies since then have indicated no evidence of cancer. The roof of his mouth is still sensitive to heat and cold, and the veteran — who now works as a defense contractor at Fort Detrick, Maryland — has to be careful when he eats anything with a rough surface like chips.
When Trujillo retired from the Navy in 2014, he decided to let his hair grow for a while, and then “after a while, I was like, there’s no reason to cut it,” he recalled.
But 2020 provided a reason: Trujillo’s brother, who is a National Guardsman in New Mexico, was being promoted to sergeant first class and asked him to take part in the pinning ceremony, or affix his new rank insignia on his uniform for the first time.
In order to be able to wear his uniform for the big day on Feb. 9, Trujillo had to cut his hair and shave his beard to military standards.
That’s what led him on a hunt for a barber on Jan. 18. After his hair was cut and divided into seven ponytails, Trujillo sent it to Hair We Share, a Long Island, New York, charity that makes wigs for patients who have lost their hair because of chemotherapy, alopecia, burns or head trauma.
“If it helps somebody feel a little bit better and not have to worry about people staring at them, I’m happy for them,” Trujillo said.
He misses his beard, so he’s letting it grow out again. But he plans to keep getting his hair cut — for now.