Chatham business owner helps Black women going through cancer treatment feel more confident

Black lady wearing glasses points at wigs in a hair shop
Black lady wearing glasses points at wigs in a hair shop
Black women in particular, tend to communicate less about breast cancer and there’s a taboo around these sorts of things

A business owner wants to help women going through mastectomy and cancer treatment feel more confident by providing a “one stop shop” for those who want both new wigs and new bras. Desiree Nurse set up Cleopatra’s in Chatham in 2007 after moving from London with her family.

Mum-of-two Desiree opened her shop in the town’s indoor market and remained there for five years before moving to the High Street. She said she has been modifying her business as the needs of the local community continue to change. For more stories for Kent’s minority communities, subscribe to Untold Stories here.

“I had a contract with the local hospital to provide wigs for people who were going through hair loss because of chemo or dermatological issues,” the 48-year-old said. “And while I have built a relationship with the patients coming in over the last few years, I’ve gained some valuable insight as to what these people really want and need while going through the treatment.

“And then we decided to come up with this business model of them being able to get the things that they need and still maintain some dignity and confidence not having to go to the hospital environment because at least when they come to the salon, they get a sense of normality again and getting the new wigs and headwear, it was really positive for them.”

The mum-of-two – who was herself diagnosed with lupus, a long-term condition that causes joint pain, skin rashes and tiredness – has recently started selling breast forms to support women who went through mastectomy. Desiree wanted to provide a service helping women from ethnic minority communities as well as any other people who would need it.

‘Black women communicate less about breast cancer’

She said: “We found when I was doing the research while trying to set up this business, that Black women in particular, tend to communicate less about breast cancer and there’s a taboo around these sorts of things within these cultural demographics.

“And what we found is that coming to me when they came for the headwear, they were more open to talk to a woman of colour like themselves about having the breast surgery and having nice, comfortable, sexy bras and all these different things.”

The 48-year-old, who came to the UK from Trinidad in 1996, said she attempted to get premises on the High Street numerous times but she kept being “stonewalled because of [her] colour”. She added: “What I did was I had a Caucasian man front for me, and he was sort of like doing the journey of getting the property and then all I did was go and sign for it.

“And then I came on the High Street and what we also found is that there’s a parade of bins that lines the street, that isn’t welcoming for families to come, and for people to come and shop and meet their needs.

“When it comes to adversities, we have them, we have a lot of division and racism and that will not go anywhere for quite a while. But once people know that you’re professional and you’re good at what you do, then they tend to bypass for the most part.”

Desiree hopes to one day be able to open other branches across Kent in a bid to help more women and expand her services. At the moment, people are coming all the way from London or Dover to get her services.

She said: “We have people from Sittingbourne, we have people coming to us from Dover, people coming to us from London – it is a wide array.”

‘Listen to their needs first’

When asked about her secret to being a successful entrepreneur, she told KentLive: “You listen to their needs first. I think good customer service always goes a long way. People want to feel that they’re being heard and that the needs are being met. You need to listen to them, love them, see them and identify with them as a human being first. We just treat people how we would want to be treated.”

She named her shop after her grandmother Cleopatra. “I was brought up with the influence of my grandparents,” she said.”They were heavily involved in my upbringing and in this village where we lived, everybody looked up to my grandmother.

“Everybody had come to her as a source of knowledge, a source of guidance, a source of love, and spiritual counsel. She was a force to be reckoned with.