Denise Dixon's experience seeing friends and family battle breast cancer inspired her to find a meaningful way to give back to other women who are fighting the disease.
Dixon, who owns the Cosmetology Institute of Las Vegas, started a "Wig-a-Thon" five years ago to help give breast cancer survivors a day of free beauty treatments — while also teaching her students the fundamentals of making, installing and styling wigs.
"Breast cancer has always been that thing that's been near and dear to my heart and seeing women and what they go through and just the journey and how it takes a toll on their body ... They don't always have the strength to just get up and try to look good, because they're so focused on trying to feel good," Dixon told TODAY. "So, that's why this became a passion of mine, just to give them a day where they could just feel really good and look good."
The average risk of a woman developing breast cancer in her lifetime is 1 in 8, according to the American Cancer Society. There are 3.8 million breast cancer survivors in the United States, which includes women who are still being treated and those who have completed treatment. (While rare, men can also be diagnosed with breast cancer. The lifetime risk is estimated at 1 in 833 men, according to the American Cancer Society.)
The students use real human hair that Dixon gets from a vendor and carefully sew tracks of hair onto the wig cap until the entire style is complete. Some students can complete a wig in three hours, while others may take up to eight hours to finish one wig, Dixon said.
"We take them through the grassroots process of wig making, starting with a mannequin head, wig caps, needles and threads," Dixon said.
This year, 10 breast cancer survivors who have been nominated by members of the community will be treated to breakfast and a facial at the Cosmetology Institute of Las Vegas. They'll be fitted with wigs that are styled to their preferences. The women will also have the option of getting other beauty services before a luncheon and a photo shoot. Dixon said 10 additional wigs will be donated to the American Cancer Society.
While Dixon wants to give survivors a special day, she's also using Breast Cancer Awareness Month to spread the message of early detection. For the first time ever, on Nov. 5, the Nevada Health Centers' Mammovan will be on campus. Dixon said she'll pay for anyone in the community who doesn't have health insurance to receive a mammogram in the van's mobile 3D mammogram station.
Keneisha Wright, who started at the Cosmetology Institute of Las Vegas in June, told TODAY that breast cancer has affected her family and said she's thrilled to put her new skills to use supporting the survivor community.
"It’s very touching for me. Every year (my family and I) walk in the cancer walk," Wright said. "It’s going to be a better feeling for me to help the people who have been affected by it and make them smile for a day."
Dixon said she's eager for her students to experience the joy she feels every year when she meets with breast cancer survivors and sees their smiles after a fun day of being pampered with glam makeovers.
"There's no amount of money you could pay me for what I do, I am purpose driven," Dixon said. "My reward is that I have the opportunity to put a smile on someone's face."