Colleen Presken often sees oncology patients right after they’ve received some disheartening news. “Some of them are in tears while they’re in here because they may have just found out from our oncologist across the hall that they’re going to lose their hair with chemotherapy,” says the radiation/oncology nurse at Allegheny Health Network’s Peters Township Health + Wellness Pavilion. “Then they come over here and find out they look pretty good in a wig and some say, ‘Oh, this is gonna be okay.’”
Not only does Presken guide breast cancer and other oncology patients through their radiation and chemotherapy regimens, she also assists female patients with choosing a wig to wear during and after their treatments. Chemotherapy is a systemic treatment, meaning it goes all through the body.
“All of your cells could be affected,” Presken explains. “The hair is the most noticeable because once it falls out, you have to wait for that regrowth to occur and that won’t occur until you’re finished with your chemo. Then it takes months before you’re ready to go without a wig.”
AHN developed the free wig program in partnership with the American Cancer Society specifically to help women dealing with cancer and the potential side-effects of treatment. The service provides women experiencing hair loss as part of their cancer treatment the ability to be fitted for and receive a wig free of charge. The program is free and open to women regardless of what insurance they may have or where they may be receiving their treatment. Hair loss is, “harder than anything for most women,” Presken adds.
“It’s so rewarding to see these people … they’re so thankful. They come in usually before they lose their hair and they know what’s coming down the road.” The assortment of 20-25 wigs includes human and synthetic hair and range in color, style and texture. “They usually bring somebody with them just for a second opinion,” Presken says. “We’ll assist them, but we don’t always have what they want. I’d say 95 percent of the women will find something they’re happy with.” Patients also receive a free turban, as well as information on support groups and other programs offered by the American Cancer Society such as free makeup lessons, which can help patients to look and feel better during treatment when they’re dealing with issues such as losing their eyebrows.
“It’s traumatic to lose your hair,” says Nancy Frazier of Studio Seven in Washington – and she knows that from personal experience. “When I was in my late 30s, my hair started thinning. I have to wear a whole wig or pieces. I also had breast cancer, but I did not have to have chemotherapy because they caught mine early enough. But I still know what it is for people to go through hair loss and how you feel differently. I do get it and I’ll take mine off right in front of them.”
Frazier has been working with wigs and hair pieces for 25 years and now works mainly with clients dealing with hair loss and thinning hair. She often partners with local non-profit agencies that assist patients facing hair loss due to illness and chemotherapy. “The reason why we see breast cancer patients more is that the medicine they give them guarantees you lose your hair within 14 to 21 days,” Frazier says. She recommends patients do a consultation before they begin treatment to get that off their plate and alleviate the stress of trying to deal with it once hair loss begins. Frazier has hundreds of wigs and hair pieces in the shop in all varieties of color and style, and will also cut and style a wig just as if it were the patient’s real hair.
Why is hair loss so emotionally challenging for women? Frazier contends that it’s more than vanity or a concern about beauty but rather an issue of confidence and self-esteem. Loss of privacy is also an issue because losing your hair makes what is often a private battle with cancer suddenly very public. “It makes you look different,” she explains. “If I’m gonna go out in the world and be me and act like I’m not sick then all of a sudden you’re gonna look at me differently and say, ‘Oh, what’s wrong?’”
Frazier remembers when a colleague of hers remarked on her change in demeanor when wearing a hair piece or wig. “One of the girls who worked with me said, ‘I can tell when you have your extensions out because your head is down. Your chin is up when you have hair.’ That’s confidence. When you look better, you are going to feel better.”