Sarah Walters only had the doors to her henna studio, Sarahenna, in Bothell, Washington, open for a few months in 2010 when a request from her mother would change the course of her business.
“My mom told me about a friend who was battling cancer and had lost hair so she asked me to do a crown for her,” Walters, 41, told ABC News, referring to a henna design that covers one’s head.
Walters drew the crown for her mom’s friend and then began offering her service to other cancer patients free of charge.
“Many have never had henna before but see the beautiful artwork and it’s something different than wearing a hat or a wig,” she said of patients who have lost their hair to chemotherapy. “Others come by referral because they hear what a relaxing personal experience it is.”
Walters described the process as "very personal," adding, "I'm touching their head and we’re also talking so it’s healing and beneficial."
Henna has been used as a natural type of body art for thousands of years. Walters, an artist, began practicing the art form in 2008.
She works with cancer patients of all types and ages, but predominantly sees women who are battling breast cancer.
“It was completely unexpected and just sort of came to me,” Walters said of expanding her practice beyond her typical clientele of weddings and corporate events. “Every single time, every person I come in contact with and create a crown is a positive experience.”
'Explosion of Life'
Yvonne Stevens, 51, of Olympia, Washington, is battling breast cancer. She drove nearly two hours to Walters’ studio earlier this month to receive a crown, her first-ever piece of body art.
“More than anything, it is a beautiful way of facing what you have to face,” said Stevens. “You don’t feel like you have to cover your head all the time … it’s like putting on a really fancy hat.”
Stevens, like most of Walters’ clients with cancer, came in with an idea of what she wanted and then worked with Walters to make her vision of flowers and leaves a reality. Walters creates every crown by freehand.
“I describe it as an explosion of life, the flowers and leaves,” Stevens said. “That was what spoke to me.”
Each session with Walters typically takes around 90 minutes. The henna art will gradually fade away after a few weeks of wear.
Walters uses natural henna that she blends with water, sugar and lavender essential oil. She stressed that cancer patients in particular should seek out an artist using nontoxic, natural materials.
“The combination is also a little bit of an aromatherapy for patients because it feels good and smells nice,” she said.
The type of materials and care Walters puts into her work command rates that can run as high as $100 per hour. Walters did not hesitate to offer cancer patients her services free of charge after remembering her own family’s struggle.
“My stepdad had cancer in 2004 and that was a traumatic time and I also remember the financial impact that it had on my family,” she said. “I don’t want a henna crown to be something that is inaccessible to most people.”
Walters also benefits from her sessions with cancer patients.
“They are having to display so much courage and strength and they’re fighting this illness,” she said. “It’s always inspiring and I learn something from them every single time.”