This cancer survivor has created an army of child crusaders to help fight the disease
Premi Mathew of Hair for Hope India has inspired youngsters from across the country to donate their hair for cancer patients, while her campaign Protect Your Mom International has turned thousands of children into advocates of early cancer detection.
Premi Mathew had just finished a final round of treatment for breast cancer when she noticed that her six-year-old nephew, Dylan, hadn’t gotten a haircut in a while. When she learned that his flowing tresses were going into a wig for cancer patients, the potential of how much she could do for the cause, struck.
Mathew now leads a global movement of hair donation and early cancer detection that has garnered more than 55,000 followers, putting to work her 17 years of teaching experience. A majority of those taking the baton forward are children and young adults—a spark little Dylan had so unwittingly set off nearly 13 years ago.
Hair for Hope India, which was launched in 2013, is led by hair donors—as young as three-year-old—who grow their hair to a minimum of 12 inches before donating it. But the larger movement that supports and often works in tandem with this initiative is Protect your Mom (PYM) International, which encourages children to hold their mothers accountable—encouraging them to check for lumps and early signs of breast cancer every month through self-examination.
Events are organised by student leaders within their own schools and universities. Over 400 students from various schools and colleges have held PYM events following simple guidelines, to create awareness about self-examinations.
Over the last decade, Mathew has trained more than 60 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to convert donated hair into wigs, which they give free of cost to cancer patients. More than 4,000 wigs have been donated by various NGOs, including Friends of Cancer patients (FOCP) Sharjah and Butterflies BBI, USA. For those who can afford higher quality wigs, Mathew has put a system in place through which five donors can donate directly to the patient and Hair for Hope India connects them to a wig maker who can make the wig for less than one-seventh the market price. This custom-made wig is often created with hair from their own loved ones, or with the patient’s own hair.
Young champions leading the fight against cancer
One of the brand ambassadors of PYM, Aadithya Singh of DPS, Dubai, was eight years old when he began pushing his mother to check for lumps and other signs of cancer. “After losing his grandma to cancer, Aaditya has been bargaining with me in his own ways,” his mother Veenu says. “If I do a daily self examination, he will keep his tiffin and water bottle in the bag himself; every time he gets full marks in any of his tests, I have to commit to a gynae checkup; every time he wins a competition, I have to talk to people about the benefits of early detection,” she says. Aaditya became the brand ambassador of PYM in 2022.
Sixteen-year-old Ritisha Singh of Bhilai, Chattisgarh, became the director of PYM in India in 2022. Ritisha and her friend Inesh joined a game stall at an exhibition last year to raise awareness and funds for cancer, and donated the Rs. 15,000 they made out to fund a chemotherapy session for a patient at their local hospital. In addition, Ritisha also held an online event during the pandemic educating students to push their mothers to conduct self-examinations, and helmed a cut-a-thon at their neighbourhood mall where 25 people donated their hair.
Creating a movement
Hair for Hope India has held hundreds of events in more than 20 states in India, and inspired similar movements in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bhutan. Most volunteers and changemakers are connected to the cause through their social media platforms where photos and videos of live cut-a-thons are uploaded. In June last year, Hair for Hope’s global cut-a-thon saw 475 people donating hair in 26 live locations across 13 Indian states.
“Everything is posted online. We’ve had people in Delhi donating directly to a patient in their city; we’ve had a patient from Dubai who used her own hair to make a wig. I connect them all to a wig maker we have in Kerala,” says Mathew.
The annual cut-tathon has become a big feature after the COVID-19 pandemic, says Mathew. “We get at least two donors a day or more and many of them are boys and men. Normally, I ask them to register for an event and then donate from anywhere around the world by logging into Zoom at that particular time,” she says.
In June this year, Hair for Hope India, will host another cut-a-thon that will see participants donating live from across the country. Also taking centre stage in these events will be PYM campaigns.
“The difference between early and late detection is that the latter comes with more expense, trauma and suffering. Women tend to ignore their health and the whole family suffers, children lose their mothers,” says Mathew.
“It’s a lot like how McDonalds makes kids pester their parents to get them their burgers through toys. I make children pester their mothers to check for early signs. Mine was a small lump in the breast that I would have ignored had my husband not been a doctor," said Mathew. "That’s when it hit me that when it was so easy to find it on your own, why should so many people die. At least five women have been saved through our movement. And this makes everything—including my own journey with cancer, and what I do—purposeful.
Edited by Akanksha Sarma