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April Lewis at her hair Alice in Wonderland-themed salon in Dunlap, Tenn.
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April Lewis at her hair Alice in Wonderland-themed salon in Dunlap, Tenn.

April Lewis wears her heart on her sleeve.

In her case, the contents of her heart are rendered on a tattoo filled with characters and images from "Alice in Wonderland."

There, on her elegantly inked right arm, is Alice in the Hatter's hat, and the March Hare and Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

"I've always been a big fan of 'Alice in Wonderland,'" said the 39-year-old Dunlap, Tennessee, hair salon owner. "You can go into a place that is not normal. Make up your own rules, your own reality."

Three years ago, when she opened her salon, called Hairitage, Lewis immediately decorated it with a "Through the Looking Glass" theme.

Inside the salon there's a silhouette cutout of Alice hanging upside down from the ceiling. She's falling down the rabbit hole, Lewis explained. There is a wall of clocks, all set to different times, and a line of books and teapots suspended from the rafters with fishing line.

"This is my Wonderland," Lewis, a single mother of two little girls, said while gesturing around the salon.

Lewis explained that the salon is housed in an old movie theater on Walnut Street — interestingly, the place where one set of her grandparents had their first date.

A year ago last month, Lewis' life turned upside down shortly after she discovered a lump in her right breast. She went to her doctor, who immediately ordered a mammogram.

"The mammogram tech got nervous and sent me down the hall for an ultrasound, and I could tell they didn't like what they saw," Lewis remembered.

A few days later, a biopsy was performed, and soon Lewis got a fateful phone call from her doctors — the lump was Stage 3 breast cancer.

An optimist by nature, Lewis said her thoughts immediately turned to her family and friends. How would her girls — ages 6 and 12 — react, she thought? What would this mean for her customers?

The next few months were grueling: 16 chemo treatments beginning last June, followed by a right mastectomy in December and 30 rounds of radiation in January and February.

Meanwhile, her adopted hometown of Dunlap — where she had spent weekends and summers with her grandparents as a kid — embraced her in ways she never would have imagined.

"I didn't understand how many people cared about me," Lewis said. "The support was verbal, financial, emotional. People would stop by just to hug me. People gave me money because they knew I couldn't work at the moment. Fundraisers were held for me so I could pay my bills and stuff."

And the food, so much food, she recalled.

Because she couldn't work, former hairstyle clients became close friends who invited her into their homes, she said. Meanwhile, her kindhearted landlord suspended rent payments on her salon while she was on the shelf.

Now, more than a year after she found the lump, Lewis has still not been cleared by her doctors to return to work. She charts her progress on a blog, the most efficient way to communicate her health status to friends and family.

She will have another surgery in late summer and hopes that after that her doctor will let her return to the salon.

She said, "I'm optimistic that things are going to get back to normal, that things are going to be OK."

A fairy tale ending would be nice.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645.

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