Hair Loss and Breast Milk: Young Mother's Cancer Journey

Published January 9, 2018

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Ashley Chesnut (L) shaved her head on January 5 at the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center along with her older sister, Theresa Hops (R). Ashley was diagnosed with cancer just a few days before Christmas. 

It felt like a freight train was on her chest. Ashley Chesnut carefully put down her 5-month-old son, Easton, and crawled to the phone to call her mother and husband.

“It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced,” says Chesnut. “The pain was so sharp that I couldn’t even lift my 13-pound baby.”

Just a few days before Christmas, tests confirmed the 30-year-old mother from La Vista, Nebraska, had primary mediastinal B-cell lymphoma, which is a specific type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma that usually occurs in young women and they present with a large chest mass.

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Ashley's 2-year-old daughter, Gracie, picked out matching hats for them to wear. 

“It looked like two baseballs sitting on top of each other.”

Chesnut became a patient of Julie Vose, MD, chief of hematology/oncology at Nebraska Medicine. Her treatment plan called for chemotherapy, which meant Chesnut would likely lose her hair.

“I had no idea how to tell my 2-year-old daughter, Gracie, that I had cancer,” says Chesnut. “Nebraska Medicine’s child life specialists sat down with her and explained what was happening. They helped Gracie pick out matching hats for us.”

A few days after New Year’s, Chesnut decided to shave her head – but she wasn’t alone. Her older sister, Theresa Hops, who’s had long, blonde hair for more than 40 years, also wanted to shave her head. Joann Tate, a scheduling associate who is known as the “resident head shaver” at the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center at Nebraska Medicine, cut the sisters’ hair in Chesnut’s hospital room.

“When I heard what Theresa wanted to do for her sister, I told them, ‘this is awesome. You can be cancer warriors together,’” says Tate. “Afterwards, Theresa packaged up her hair and donated it to Locks of Love.”

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Due to her treatment plan, Ashley was no longer able to breastfeed her son, Easton, who has a milk soy protein intolerance (MSPI).

The next step was finding Chesnut a wig. Free, gently used wigs are available for patients experiencing hair loss. The wig banks are located at the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center and Nebraska Medicine – Village Pointe.

“I tried on brunette, blonde, red and even raspberry – which provided some much-needed laughter,” says Chesnut. “Not having to pay for a wig is a huge relief.”

There was still one more weight on Chesnut’s shoulders. Due to her treatment plan, Chesnut was no longer able to breastfeed her son who has a milk soy protein intolerance (MSPI). Jaclyn Kenney, a staff nurse on the Special Care Unit of the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center, heard the news and immediately wanted to help.

“It broke my heart when I heard Ashley’s story,” says Kenney. “My daughter, Halle, is one day older than Ashley’s son and also doesn’t tolerate dairy. I did lab work here at the hospital to make sure my breast milk is safe for Easton. It felt amazing to be able to donate to a patient who was cared for on my floor.”

So far, Kenney has donated around 1,000 ounces of breast milk to Chesnut and plans to give her extra if/when she needs it.   

“It was an answered prayer,” adds Chesnut. “As a mother, I want to provide my son with the nutrition he needs. This was just another example of extraordinary care at Nebraska Medicine.”

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Jaclyn Kenney (L), a staff nurse at the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center, holds her 5-month-old daughter, Halle. When she heard Ashley could no longer breastfeed her son, Jaclyn donated nearly 1,000 ounces of her own breast milk.
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From her hospital room, Ashley tried on several wigs, which are free for patients at Nebraska Medicine.

To schedule an appointment with a Nebraska Medicine cancer specialist, call 402.559.5600.

To be fitted for a wig at the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center, call 402.559.1222. To be fitted for a wig at Nebraska Medicine - Village Pointe, call 402.596.3195.

Want to donate your extra breast milk? Learn more by visiting our Lactation and Breastfeeding website, or by calling the lactation team at 402.552.3487.