Last June, Liza Takounakis-Zarou was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer.
Now, after a double mastectomy and months of intense chemotherapy and radiation treatments, she’s fighting back against cancer with Liza’s Lids — a nonprofit foundation that provides free wigs, hats, prostheses, bandanas and scarves to women experiencing hair loss and other side effects of cancer.
“I don’t believe that because you’re poor, or you don’t have the ability to pay, that you should have to walk around with an ugly wig or an ugly scarf,” Takounakis, 44, said.
Debra Otani of Derwood is a nurse and cancer navigator at MedStar Montgomery Medical Center in Olney. Otani, who helps organize a monthly support group for local women diagnosed with breast cancer, said she was Takounakis’ navigator who helped her during her cancer treatment.
Otani’s support group was the first to partner with Takounakis when she started her foundation. Since then, Takounakis, of Silver Spring, said she has reached out to nine different locations since she began in May.
“Liza said early on that she wanted to make sure every woman anticipating hair loss would have a large choice … that complimented their best features,” Otani said, adding that not all wigs and scarves are the right fit for all women. “If you could have all of those resources available to you in a large choice, it gives you a real sense of being able to be prepared for that part of your treatment as well.”
Self-proclaimed cancer champion Pamela Hughes said she was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1990. She said she did not lose her hair while undergoing treatment in 1998 or 2005, but about a year ago her hair started falling out when she underwent chemotherapy.
“I had wigs prior to my hair coming out. I used to wear wigs for fashion. My hair never came out [before], but I decided that I would wear one because I want to and not because I have to,” Hughes said. “I lost both of my breasts and did not cry, but when my hair came out, oh my God! I’ve won some serious battles, but when my hair came out, [I] cried.”
She said Liza had given her a scarf after meeting her at a support group meeting at MedStar Montgomery Medical Center. She is inspired by Takounakis’ way of fighting cancer.
“So quick after her diagnosis to want to jump back in there — that’s a way of fighting to me,” Takounakis said. “Telling the cancer ‘I’m not going to allow you to impact my life in a negative way, I’m gonna do something to show that I’m going to beat you.’”
While Takounakis manages most of the foundation, she has help from a few of her friends in the area. Joann Johnson-Valainis of Walkersville said she’s known Takounakis for nearly 30 years, and supported her throughout her fight and recovery.
“Liza was always very vivacious, very beautiful growing up. Her looks were a big deal [and] she just said to me one day: ‘Cancer is not very pretty,’” Johnson-Valainis said. “You’re battling for your life, and then you don’t even want to look at yourself in the mirror. I can only imagine going through that battle and all of a sudden, your hair is gone.”
Johnson-Valainis said that Liza’s Lids helps women build their self-esteem. When Takounakis said she wanted to start the foundation, Johnson-Valainis said she was “proud” to be a part of it immediately and has helped with the foundation’s website.
Linda Poole-Birch of Walkersville said she’s been friends with Takounakis for more than 10 years, helping on occasion with the website and shopping for supplies with her.
“Liza is so passionate about it, I just hope that one day she can do more of Maryland — I know it’s her ultimate goal,” Poole-Birch said. “I [also] hope the foundation pays for itself as opposed to Liza grabbing in her pocket.”
Takounakis said she spends about $500 each month of her own money to purchase the wigs, hats and other donated items. She said she will need more donations to expand to surrounding counties.
She said her hair was her “signature” before the breast cancer. In addition to promoting early detection of breast cancer and getting mammograms early and often, Takounakis said she hopes her foundation will help women struggling with the embarrassment and guilt that comes with breast cancer.
“To be in her situation and come out on the other side still smiling and just wanting to give back is — I’m just so proud of her,” Poole-Birch said.