Sisters Cynthia and Rachel own a beauty salon in Long Island, New York, which they open free of charge to cancer patients once a month on Mondays. They were inspired to do so by their experience with their mother, a cancer victim who felt her appearance changed dramatically as her illness progressed; with it, her proud sense of self withered.
Mondays at Racine follows the touching stories of women who visit the salon for manicures, pedicures, hair styling, makeup application, eyelash extensions, and more. The patients find a supportive community at Racine, sharing their stories with one another and feeling an odd yet comforting connection, forged out of the shared experience of the disease. The film focuses in particular on two subjects:
• Cambria is living with Stage 3 breast cancer, an aggressive form of the disease. Her young son knows she has a “boo-boo,” but does not know the extent of her illness. Cambria and her husband also care for a young boy in foster care whom they hope to adopt, though Cambria fears her health will negatively impact their ability to adopt him. She decides to have her head shaved at Racine, but it’s a difficult choice. More important is her decision to undergo either a single or double mastectomy at only 36 years of age. She eventually decides to undergo the latter.
• Linda was initially given five years to live, but has outlived that prognosis by 17 years. Still, after undergoing extensive chemo for years, Linda admits to a high physical and emotional toll on her and her husband Warren, who were married a year after high school. Linda doesn’t feel her husband is ready for her to die. “It’s almost like he’s holding his breath, waiting for that shoe to drop,” she says, adding that he’s always been “a fixer,” but cancer is one thing he couldn’t fix. Linda’s disease caused Warren to question his faith in God, while Linda has grown more religious, trying her best to “get into heaven.” Cancer has stressed their marriage to the breaking point, and Linda asks Warren to leave. She decides ultimately, and against the advice of her physician, to stop all treatments.
We also meet two couples with particularly poignant stories. Bob tries to cheer up his wife Mimi by poking fun at how wigs look on men. “The Beatles are back,” he jokes. But he grows serious, asking her, “What am I going to be without you around?” Mimi giggles. “Nothing,” she answers. Newlyweds Renee and Jeff have been married for four years and dealing with cancer as newlyweds feels particularly unfair to them. “No one signs up for this early in their marriage,” says Renee.
At the end of the film, Linda and Cambria hold the hands of a woman who’s having her head shaved at Racine; it has been over a year since Cambria underwent her mastectomy. Though it’s difficult to contemplate living with cancer, the patient feels empowered after taking control of her hair loss. “I feel like me again,” another woman says after a makeover. For Cynthia and Rachel, time with their customers puts the trials of their own lives into perspective. Compared to the women they serve on Mondays, they have “nothing to complain about.”
Credits: Directed and produced by Cynthia Wade; produced by Robin Honan; edited by David Teague; cinematography by Cynthia Wade and David Teague; music by Max Avery Lichtenstein. For HBO: supervising producer, Lisa Heller; coordinating producer, Greg Rhem; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.