Octogenarian is hooked on helping cancer patients

Lillie Smith crochets some 100 chemo caps each year.


YOUNGSTOWN — Lillie Smith’s warm heart and nimble fingers assure that area cancer patients receiving chemotherapy can have warm heads when they lose their hair.

One of the effects of chemotherapy and other cancer treatments is hair loss, according to the American Cancer Society.

Smith, an 82-year old great-great-great grandmother, crochets some 100 chemo caps each year for ACS, which distributes the hats to cancer patients.

She started crocheting the caps when her husband, L.B., was having chemo treatments, Smith said. L.B., who worked at Republic Steel in Youngstown for 32 years before retiring as a foreman, was diagnosed with cancer in the 1990s and underwent chemotherapy.

“He lost his hair and needed something to keep his head warm in the winter and on other cool days. The cap also distracted people from staring at his bald head,” she said.

“He was well for quite a while after the chemotherapy, but then the cancer came back. That’s why I work so hard,” she said.

After her husband passed away in April 2004, Smith continued to keep her hands busy by making the one-size-fits-all cancer caps in his memory.

He was a wonderful husband, father and grandfather, involved with his children and grandchildren and in the church and community, Smith said. He was a Mason for 50 year.

“These caps are for all cancer patients. Children, women and men can use them. They not only provide a cover for their head, but warmth from the cold weather too. There is an emotional letdown when a person loses his hair,” Smith said.

She began crocheting when she was a young girl growing up in West Virginia. One of seven children, she said no one in particular taught her to crochet. “We all learned together,” she said.

One of her brothers, who was skillful with wood, carved crochet hooks for them. They didn’t have real yarn with which to crochet. Instead, they used the string butchers used to tie up packages of meat, she said.

“In places and times like that, you learned how to do things to survive,” said Smith, whose father was a coal miner and was paid in scrip that went to the company store.

Several years ago, Smith taught crocheting classes at her church, Alpha & Omega First Baptist Church, on the East Side of Youngstown.

Over the years, she has crocheted many items, such as afghans and bedspreads, but only makes smaller items now.

“Chemo caps give me the greatest pleasure because I know they help others. I get great joy out of making them,” she said.

Smith said she would never think of charging a fee for the caps. “I am just happy they are useful.

“I have been fortunate to get plenty of yarn donated. Since I don’t drive any more, I rely on others to provide me with the yarn. Seeing what my husband went through made me realize that he wasn’t the only one who needed a head covering, others did too.” The chemo caps come in a variety of colors, depending on what color of yarn Smith has available. Some are one color, while others are multicolor. She uses only new yarn.

Smith said she plans to continue making the caps as long as she is physically able.

SDLqI just hope and pray that my eyesight remains good and the strength in my hands and arms don’t fail. The only reason I would stop making them is if my health prohibits me,” she said.

The free chemo caps are available to cancer patients at the American Cancer Society office at 525 North Broad St., Canfield. The office is open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., except holidays.

People interested in the caps or donating yarn may call Tasha Wells at (888) 227-6446, ext. 2004.


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