Last August, knowing radiation treatment would make her hair fall out, Meechy Monroe did something radical: She had a barber come to her house and shave it all off, leaving her totally bald.
“I cried,” Monroe, 29, tells PEOPLE. “It was very difficult because my hair was so much a part of my personality.”
Monroe’s hair – natural and gloriously curly – was also her identity and her livelihood. A popular beauty blogger whose YouTube videos have gotten 2.5 million views, Monroe has gained a devoted following among African-American women, whom she encourages to celebrate their natural hair with natural, elegant styles.
After being diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer last year, Monroe has documented her journey on her blog – and inspired women with her resilience, humor and infectious optimism.
“I tell women that it’s not all about the outer appearance but to be happy with oneself,” Monroe says. “I’ve learned that beauty isn’t just hair and makeup – it goes much deeper.”
Born Tameka Moore, one of four girls in a tight-knit Chicago family, Monroe chemically straightened her hair in her teens and early 20s. Finally, in 2009, tired of bad haircuts and chemically damaged hair, she cut it off, grew an Afro and began experimenting with new styles.
Within months, she had thousands of fans on YouTube and Instagram, all hoping to recreate Monroe’s “Meechy Twist-out” – a simple, natural style that requires hair to be twisted into sections at night, revealing a soft, curly look in the morning.
With help from her sister, Vaughn Moore, 32, Monroe soon built her styling tips into a thriving business by reviewing and endorsing hair-care and beauty products. “It was so surprising – things just took off,” Monroe says. “I started hearing from women all over the world.”
Then, one day last April, shortly before her 29th birthday, Monroe looked in the mirror and noticed one side of her face was drooping. She was also having trouble with her speech. A trip to the doctor revealed that she had suffered three strokes.
Even worse news came when doctors discovered during exploratory surgery that Monroe had a tumor – called a sarcoma – that rarely forms in the brain.
“It came as horrible news to my family,” Monroe says. “I was calm, but worried. These thoughts kept going through my head: ‘Will I make it? I have to keep faith!’ ”
The type of tumor doctors found “is often found in muscle or other extremities, but not inside the brain,” says Monroe’s neurosurgeon, Leslie Schaffer. “It’s very, very rare.”
Monroe’s tumor is not the terminal brain cancer that struck Brittany Maynard, who captured the nation’s attention with her decision to end her life Nov. 1 under Oregon’s Death With Dignity law at age 29.
In June, Monroe underwent a three-hour surgery at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, Illinois, to have the tumor removed from the left side of her brain.
The surgery was successful in removing about 95 percent of the tumor. Chemotherapy and radiation, says Monroe, have shrunk the rest to the point that “it seems to be non-existent.”
While the cancer’s rarity makes a clear prognosis difficult, Monroe’s doctors are optimistic. “She’s doing remarkably well,” Schaffer says. “She’s an amazing woman, as beautiful on the inside as on the outside.”
After several months of physical, speech and occupational therapy to recover from the strokes, Monroe still speaks slowly and at times struggles for words. But she’s determined to make a full recovery.
“I’m trying to keep a positive attitude,” she says, “and that’s made easier with the support of all these women I don’t even know.”
Blogging About Cancer
Since her cancer diagnosis, Monroe has transformed her blog from a discussion of the latest hairstyles and beauty tips to talking about her cancer and her journey back to health.
“Knowing there are other women out there facing cancer like I am,” Monroe says, “I want to do everything I can to let them know they’re not alone.”
When Monroe posted photos showing herself bald and with a 40-pound weight gain from her treatments, her fans rallied to hold fundraisers on her behalf: They raised nearly $60,000 to help pay medical bills for Monroe, who doesn’t have health insurance.
“It’s overwhelming,” she says. “They tell me, ‘I love you, I’m praying for you.’ It makes me cry every day, I’m so grateful.”
Monroe says a few of her fans told her they had shaved their heads in solidarity. “They came up with a name for the style – the ‘TWA,’ or ‘teeny, weeny Afro,’ ” Monroe laughs.
Her followers say Monroe inspires them. “I see this wonderful woman as a sister – she lifts my spirits,” says Morgan Monroe (no relation), 23, of Atlanta, who is also battling brain cancer. “If I’m having a bad day, I’ll text Meechy and she’ll respond back with words of encouragement. She supports me, and I do the same for her. We’ve formed a connection.”
Sade Jones, 28, a hairstylist and beauty blogger in Chicago, has followed Monroe’s blog from the start because she loves her “positive energy.” Following her cancer journey, however, has been even more meaningful.
“Meechy is a very genuine soul,” Jones says. “She is able to show people to love the skin that they’re in.”
A Lesson About Life
Monroe says she couldn’t do any of it without her family. While she’s recovering, she has moved back into her childhood home with her parents, Alexander Moore, a mechanic, and Patricia, an accountant.
“We’ve always been close,” says Vaughn, who has fond memories of her younger sister styling her hair before high school proms and date nights. “She would do the hair, and I would do the makeup.”
Monroe, who graduated from Southern Illinois University in 2008 with a marketing degree and worked for a marketing firm, used to be shy, says Vaughn. But on camera, “she just has this spark.”
And that hair? Before her surgery, Monroe donated it to Locks of Love, benefitting children who have suffered hair loss from cancer treatment.
“I have to look at the bright side: I’m saving money by not having to get my hair cut,” says Monroe, who wears colorful hats and scarves while her hair grows back. “Hopefully, by summer,” she says, “I’ll be posting photos of myself in the same recognizable style I’ve always had.”
But Monroe will be forever changed.
“I lost all my hair, I had the worst year of my life, but you know what? I’m still the same person, still the same soul,” she says. “I’ve learned not to take my health for granted and to live in the moment. I’m grateful for every second of living on this earth.”