Wigs can make cancer treatment a little less traumatic

August 4, 2018
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Two of the wigs available at Cammuso’s Salon Spa Wigs in Plum.

The wig sits on the mannequin head.

It hasn’t been worn in years, but Lisa Lurie can’t let go it, not yet.

This piece of hair signifies more than just a cover for her bald head due to the chemotherapy to treat breast cancer.

“I still have the wig, I am a little superstitious to give it away. It’s been 10 years, but I am not ready to get rid of it. As women, our hair defines us and is such an integral part of who we are. Losing your hair turns your private cancer...public. It is so difficult on so many levels,” says Lurie of Squirrel Hill.

Lurie co-founded Cancer Be Glammed along with her friend Ellen Weiss Kander, who died from liver cancer in 2012. The company provides women diagnosed with cancer easy access to fashionable recovery products. Lurie also co-authored “Cancer Be Glammed: Recover in Style,” a guidebook released earlier this summer that offers tips and advice to women undergoing cancer treatment. Lurie says since her diagnosis a decade ago, wigs have come a long way.

Sobering shopping

“Wearing a wig was very important emotionally,” she says. “I also wore a lot of head scarves and a halo wig, which is a thin headband with hair attached so it creates the illusion of hair. They are great when it’s hot. There was a time I was at my girls’ school and my older daughter wanted me to wear the wig and the younger daughter a head scarf, so in between visiting them I changed from my head scarf to a wig, because that was important to them. Your family is an essential part of your life when you are dealing with losing your hair.

“The first time I went looking for a wig it was sobering, really devastating, because I was thinking about what was to come. The day after I brought the wig home no one said anything, and then my husband made me breakfast in bed the following day and he wore the wig and then my friend came over late that day and she wore the wig and then my sister wore the wig. That demystified it a little bit for me,” she says.

Will I lose my hair?

If you are like most women facing chemotherapy, your first question will probably be, “Will I lose my hair?” That answer depends on the type of chemotherapy drugs involved. Some chemo treatments do not cause hair loss, while others may cause hair to thin or to fall out completely, Lurie says in her book.

Hair loss typically begins within two weeks after the start of chemotherapy. Fortunately, hair will almost always grow back after treatment is complete.

Re-growth usually starts six to eight weeks after therapy ends. Don’t be surprised if your hair initially grows back a slightly different color and texture.

Wigs are made from human hair, synthetic fiber or a mix of both. Each type has its own pros and cons and each individual wig can vary in quality, comfort and price. There are many details that impact the feel, fit and look of a wig. These include how the cap of the wig is constructed, the material used and whether the hair filaments are machine stitched or hand tied. It is helpful to try on a variety of styles until you find one or more wigs that fit well and work for you, the style guidebook reads.

More than selling a wig

Jerry Cammuso’s salon Cammuso’s Salon Spa Wigs in Plum has a private room full of wigs where cancer patients can come to find one to help with the realization they will likely lose their hair.

“We are hairdressers first and not wig salespeople,” Cammuso says. “We know what will look best on a woman. If a wig doesn’t look right, we won’t sell it.”

He says often women will come in with a photo of how they looked before they lost their hair. He meets with them to discuss the picture and shows them styles similar to their current one, as well as other colors and cuts so they can visualize the actual wig on their head. He says they don’t always choose a wig the same hue as their current locks.

“The key to the perfect wig is to have the correct size,” Cammuso says. “If you don’t have the right size, it will be too tight or too loose, and you aren’t going to want to wear it.”

Wigs - synthetic or human - require maintenance. There are products available to help keep them clean, he says. If you purchase one from someone who also is a hairdresser he or she can also trim or style a wig for you. A life expectancy of a wig is in the six month to one year range, depending on how much you wear it and how you care for it.

“Wigs can make a woman feel good, because when she looks in the mirror she has hair,” says Cammuso. “This is a tough time in her life, and we want to be here for her to help her.”

We are like therapists

Debbie Mancuso sits in the lower level of her Dormont shop Hair Enhancements of Pittsburgh surrounded by wigs. It is in this space where there are tears and moments of uncertainly when a woman comes in to discuss a wig for the first time.

“They are scared and overwhelmed, still trying to wrap their head around a cancer diagnosis and one of the first questions is ‘Will I lose my hair?’” says Mancuso. who is a hairdresser and wig and thinning hair specialist. “When that’s the reality, we try to help them with that part of this unchartered journey, because they feel like they are about to lose a part of their identity.”

Mancuso says these women can find a wig anywhere, but what she and her staff offer is a caring atmosphere, one where they can ask any question, share their feelings or just have someone to hug them. She begins with a phone consultation and asks for a photo in which they loved how their hair looked to get an idea about hair style and color so she can have a few choices ready.

“It’s an extremely emotional time,” says Kelsie Boring, a consultant at Hair Enhancements. “One day you are you, and the next day you aren’t sure what is going to happen. It’s a lot to grasp. This is about more than giving them hair. We can’t make what’s happening to them go away, but we can help give you some confidence.”

“Losing your hair is like other things in life, you don’t realize how important it is or how much it means to you until it is taken away,” Mancuso says. She says they can pretty much duplicate any cut and color a woman wants. A wig is an essential piece to helping a woman through this medical experience in her life. Helping her through the process of finding the right wig can help put her at ease so she can still live her life while undergoing treatment.

“Women feel like they are losing part of their identity when they lose their hair,” Mancuso says. “And hair loss is a noticeable thing. People often think ‘cancer.’ We are here for them every step of the way, from when they have hair to when they lose their hair to when the hair grows back, because that takes time and they will continue to need support.”

They certainly do, says Dr. Paul J. Friday, chief, clinical psychology UPMC Shadyside president Shadyside Psychological Services. The amount of money spent on hair and hair products speaks volumes about the importance placed on hair in our culture. People are careful about changing their appearances.

“When chemotheraphy simultaneously destroys cancer cells and hair follicles, the clash between survival-hope and forced appearance change can be dramatic and sometimes devastating,” Friday says. “It’s not just vanity that is at play here; our psychological sense of self can be heartfeltly diminished.”

First-time wig wearers

Insurance might cover all or some of the cost of your wig. Ask your doctor to write you a prescription for a “cranial prosthesis.”

Wig prices start around $150 for synthetic and can cost into the thousands for human hair. It is best to work with an expert so find a local hairdresser or wig salon specializing in cancer-related hair loss and thinning. If one is not available, you can purchase a wig online. The Wig Co. in Upper St. Clair has every style of wig imaginable, and if in stock, can be shipped the day it’s ordered.

Don’t panic because a new wig often requires additional styling to shape it and thin it out. A good hairdresser can re-cut and style it to suit you. To see a wig’s true color, take it outside and look at it in natural light. Some stylists recommend choosing a color lighter than your natural hair, both to counteract skin tone changes during chemotherapy and to soften your look.

Wigs with shorter hair styles are easier to care for and create a less obvious transition to your real hair as it grows in. And bangs are a plus. Bangs create a more natural hairline and can also cover thin eyebrows.

There are specialty products available such as gel headbands, wig caps and grippers to help keep wigs firmly and comfortably in place.

It is best to store your wig on a stand or mannequin to help maintain its shape and to let it air out. Cover it with a light scarf to keep it dust free and never store your wig in a plastic bag.

For wig recommendations, contact your hospital’s cancer center, the American Cancer Society or other cancer support organizations.

What to pick?

Synthetic wigs

Pros: Easy to care for, just wash and wear. Maintain their style longer than human hair wigs and are not as sensitive to weather changes.

Cons: Cannot be permed, highlighted or colored. Curling irons or hot rollers will damage them. Limited to one style and the fibers can be a bit shinier than real hair.

Human hair wigs

Pros: Human hair is strong and durable. Can be styled with perms, color changes, highlights and more.

Cons: Often more expensive to purchase and maintain. Requires more washing and styling. Wig maintenance is best done by a hairdresser.

Hybrid hair wigs

(human hair and synthetic blends)

Pros: Gives you the best of both worlds. They provide the look, feel and realistic qualities of human hair combined with synthetic hair’s ability to hold its shape and style.

Cons: Same as synthetic hair. You cannot restyle, color or perm a hybrid hair wig. Heat is also a no-no.

Halo wig

(a thin headband with hair attached that circles your head. It is worn under hats and caps to create the illusion of a full head of hair)

Pros: Much lighter and cooler than a full wig.

Cons: If the wind blows your hat off ...

Helpful hair hints

Don’t wait on a wig: If you would like to purchase a wig, start the process before you lose your hair. Work with your hairdresser or a wig specialist to find a wig that matches your current hairstyle and color or be bold and create a whole new look.

Pre-wig photo opportunity: Take a “before” photo to give your hairdresser to use as a reference when you are styling your wig.

Go short: Cut your hair shorter ahead of time to help make hair loss easier to manage. Some women prefer to shave their heads before they lose all their hair.

Cap it: Wear a very soft cap or head scarf to cover your head and to catch your hair when it starts to fall out. (It’s messy.) Also, your scalp may feel very tender.

Tie one on: Purchase a few head scarves prior to chemotherapy and learn to tie them in unique ways.

Accessorize: Search through your jewelry box for eye-catching earrings and necklaces that enhance your eyes and your beautiful face.

Source: Cancer Be Glammed: Recover in Style

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