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St. Mary's School pupils give up their locks for love Their hair will be used to fashion wigs for patients undergoing treatment for cancer

Mike Puinno refuses to die.

Through each round of chemotherapy, his hair has grown back a little bit slower. But Monday, he walked into the St. Mary's Elementary School gym with thick black tresses and asked the stylist to trim it into a Mohawk.

It's his great rebellion against a particularly cruel form of cancer that took over his body more than four years ago.

Monday, he was one of many who gave up his hair for a cause.

In all, 36 pupils at the Lancaster school and their parents gave up their ponytails for Locks of Love, an organization that collects hair for wigs for patients who have lost their hair because of cancer treatments. Another 78 pupils donated $10 each for trims from area stylists, who donated their time to the cause.

The event was the brainchild of art teacher Jean Ferry, Puinno's sister.

"I wanted to do something positive," said Ferry, who had her curly auburn strands cut to a short hip hairdo.

As the pupils gave up their locks, Puinno sat in his own chair, chatting freely about his terminal disease as his stylist went to work with clippers, dousing the curly mohawk with hair spray and pulling out the straightening iron.

By the time he got up again, he looked more like a punk rocker than a man battling to stay alive. He leans into a mirror.

"Dude!" he says, pulling his stylist into a one-armed hug. "I'm 54. I can't go out like this. Ha ha ha ha ha! Thanks a lot!"

The way he laughs, you'd never know he is living in pain. But his body is killing him. He presses a reporter's hand against his abdomen, sliding it over his bloated belly.

"That's the liver," he said, giving a tour of his disease. "That's the spleen, and that's the pancreas," dragging the hand across in a long swipe.

Knowing how to live with pain is the key to life, he said. That's why he confounds doctors every time he celebrates another birthday.

"I have five kids," he said. "You don't have an opportunity to be scared."

But he was scared.

He remembers the day the doctors told him he had pancreatic cancer that had spread to his liver -- incurable cancer.

"I walked out of there and started saying goodbye to people," he said. "That's what they told me to do."

He broke the news to his children, most of whom were teenagers at the time, and then called his best friend to tell him he was going to die. He spent the rest of the night getting angry at himself.

"I'm shaking hands before the game is over," he said. "Next day, I called him back and said, 'Never mind.' I've broken four deadlines now."

His wife, his brother and some of his children joined Puinno at the gym for the afternoon.

Pupils fill the room in shifts for five hours. At the start of the year, they promised their art teacher they would let their hair grow for Locks of Love.

Children as young as 5 sat at the makeshift barber stations with a mixture of excitement and fear.

Meghan Wojtkiewicz, 12, had been growing her hair out since May.

"I'm right here," a friend said. "Do you want me to hold your hand?"

"Yeah, give me it," Meghan answered as the stylist chopped off four ponytails around her head.

Puinno was impressed by the turnout.

"Isn't this great?" he said, contemplating how long these girls have let their hair grow. "How do you get a kid to commit to anything for that long?"

His wife, Cheryl, agreed. "It's good to see all the young people turn out."

But her eyes looked perpetually sad. She's forced to continue working full time to support her family and her husband, who could not continue his job as a software licensing specialist with Ingram Micro.

Meanwhile, her family has been assailed with expenses associated with her husband's treatment.

"You do what you have to do," she said. "My kids need me. My husband needs me."

She added, "He's telling me he didn't get to do half the things he wanted to do. But he doesn't know how many lives he's touched."

When the family lived in New Orleans, he started a Boy Scout troop for children living in housing projects who had never had a good male role model.

For more than 20 years, he also coached youth baseball.

Everyone relentlessly asks after him now, said his daughter, Cathy, 23.

Puinno has endured six rounds of chemotherapy, months in bed and long stretches on medication that has created gaps in his memory.

Next month, he goes back to Roswell Park Cancer Institute to have radioactive spheres inserted into his liver.

He hasn't written his will or picked out a casket. Instead, he says, he's asked for God's help and works on staying strong. He has regained his weight and -- until Monday -- his hair.

"You know," he said, "people say, 'I don't want to give you false hope.' How can hope be false?"

Puinno answered cancer's claim on his body with some well-placed swear words. He plans to keep on living.


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