September 14, 2019

Chemocessories is Helping Cancer Patients Feel Beautiful

“Thank you so very much! I received my package! My favorite color blue … it made my day. Such a blessing and kindness! It made me smile on a tough day. Thanks to everyone who makes this possible. Love and blessings to all!”

The above was just one response from the more than 7,000 women who have received a free Chemocessories gift set. The gift sets contain thoughtfully chosen earrings, necklaces, turbans and scarves, designed for women who lose their hair while undergoing cancer treatment. 

Manhattan Beach resident Iris Lee Knell, 60, started Chemocessories in 2011, two years after her own cancer diagnosis. “It was a way to give back,” she said. 

Lee Knell learned that she had breast cancer after a routine mammogram. She underwent two surgeries followed by courses of chemotherapy and radiation. Throughout the process, the self-described optimist tried to remain positive. She found writing helpful and maintained a journal on the website CaringBridge. She continued her work as a school counselor in the South Bay. She planned a bat mitzvah for one of her three, now adult, daughters. And when she lost her hair, she purchased a wig. But she quickly learned she hated wearing it. It was hot and uncomfortable, she said.

She had always enjoyed wearing accessories, however, and had a stash of scarves. Instead of the wig, she began donning colorful turbans with scarves. She chose jewelry to tie together the look. One day, she attended a presentation at an area school wearing the turban and, when people told her how beautiful she looked, she revealed that she had cancer. When a friend mentioned that her mother was undergoing chemotherapy and losing her hair, she wondered if Lee Knell could do anything to lift her spirits.

“My hair was starting to grow in,” said the New York native. “I gave her my turban and a pair of little button earrings.” 

Shortly thereafter, Lee Knell put together a few accessory sets. They were packaged simply in Ziploc bags. But they were assembled thoughtfully, with each bag containing coordinating earrings, a necklace, turban and scarf. At the nearby Cancer Support Community Redondo Beach, where she had been a program participant (and later would become a volunteer), Lee Knell inquired if they wanted the bags, to distribute at no charge. They did, and the bags went quickly.

“If 7,500-plus women smiled one more time than they would have smiled without this, then I have helped somebody.” — Iris Lee Knell

When friends started to write checks to support Lee Knell’s effort, she decided she’d better make it official, and in 2014, Chemocessories became a nonprofit. It is entirely volunteer-driven and supported by donations. Those requesting sets via the website pay nothing. Those making the request on behalf of a friend or loved one are asked if they would like to make a $10 donation to cover the cost of postage and packing materials. These are Chemocessories’ main expenses.

To date, the organization has sent out more than 7,000 sets, filling requests in all 50 states. Lee Knell, who still works full time as a school counselor and maintains a private therapy practice, credits a cadre of loyal volunteers, who once a month gather and set up something like a small factory line. 

Chemocessories also hosts larger events, such as a recent two-day affair that took place at Lee Knell’s synagogue, Congregation Tikvat Jacob Beth Torah in Manhattan Beach. 

All items included in the bags are new or very gently used. 

“I had an idea that has become a passion,” she said. “If 7,500-plus women smiled one more time than they would have smiled without this, then I have helped somebody. It doesn’t take a lot for us to get out of our own comfort zone and do something for someone else.”

For more information, visit the website.