Hide No Hair: Hair Loss and Head Coverings Then and Now

TON - January/February 2014 Vol 7 No 1 - Survivorship
Angela Long
Angela Long is the founder and creator of Breast Investigators, which serves as a comprehensive resource guide to help those affected by breast cancer readily gain access to quality information, care, assistance, and support. Visit www.BreastInvestigators.com.

“I was going to buy a book on hair loss, but the pages kept falling out.”
Jay London

Hair loss was one of the biggest emotional struggles I faced as a young woman with cancer. When I think back about losing my hair to chemo almost 10 years ago, I am struck by how both the cultural norms and headwear options have changed since then. I wonder if I would do things differently. Although there are many new options to help us rise above our hair loss, I believe the essential criteria for selecting headwear remain the same: cost, comfort, and self-confidence.

As a busy mom of 2 little ones, my goal was to get through breast cancer treatment looking as normal as possible, and without breaking the bank. My kids were only 2 and 5 years old at the time of my diagnosis, so I was not as worried about embarrassing them as some of my survivor friends with teen children were. I did want to keep things as “normal” as I could for my kids so as not to scare them. My son was in kindergarten, and I was the classroom mom. I searched for a wig as close as possible to my normal hair in an effort to draw the least amount of attention to my situation and to ward off the questions from inquiring young minds, and other mothers. My daughter was in her fairy princess years, and she would touch my head and ask me why I did not grow my hair like the princesses in her books. I felt very much on my own navigating the topic of hair loss with my children.

Fortunately, women today have more resources and support to help them explain cancer and hair loss to their children. See below for information about contacting me for my recommended resources for some of my favorite books for helping mothers talk about their hair loss with their children.
Minimizing the impact of my hair loss and cancer on my children was my top priority, but cost was another real concern. I was glad to learn that most insurance policies cover hair prostheses for cancer patients and that several organizations offer free wigs, scarves, and hats to all cancer patients, regardless of insurance status.

Shopping for wigs proved to be more of a challenge than I expected. I began searching for a wig to match what my usual hairstyle was before my hair fell out. My first visit was to the American Cancer Society, which I was told offered free wigs to cancer patients. Unfortunately, this trip did not turn out well. Our local office was small, and its resources were limited. Although it offered a private consultation room and a caring volunteer to assist me, the selection consisted of just a few options, none of them attractive choices for a woman in her 30s. I learned the importance of having a private consultation room and a caring assistant with a tissue at the ready. When that first wig was placed on my head, all of the emotions that I had pent up inside of me came pouring out in a waterfall of tears. When I think back on that day, I feel bad for the volunteer who was there to assist and console me. Survivor Guilt…another article for another time.

When I told my good friend about the depressing wig-searching experience, she suggested that she accompany me next time to make a day of it. What a difference it made! It was so much more fun to have a friend by my side to lighten the mood. We visited a couple of wig shops, and I found myself even having a bit of fun. One of our stops was a trendy clothing boutique with a nice selection of stylish wigs in the back of the shop. Although the shop did not offer a private space to try on wigs, I was fortunate to have gone before my hair began to fall out. Nonetheless, I made a mental note of the importance of wig shops that do offer private consultation rooms.

Selecting wigs and headwear became a process of weighing the pros and the cons. After trying and experimenting with various wigs, I realized that an exact match was not likely. Knowing what an itchy, fidgety person I was, I had visions of looking like someone out of a comedy skit by midday unless I could find a wig that was comfortable for me.

I ultimately selected a wig with my hair color, styled in a bob, and pulled back behind a comfortable black cloth headband. It was comfortable, and it was the most familiar option I could find. Mission complete…or so I thought. The problem was that I grew tired of customizing my wardrobe around the permanent black headband. I was ready for something more versatile.

Since I had lost my hair by that time, I did my shopping online. By then I had tried on enough wigs to have an idea of what brand, color, and length matched my preference. I was able to order something close to what I was looking for from the privacy of my home. The length and style needed a little adjusting, so I wore it to my usual hairdresser, and he styled it for me.

I learned a lot about wigs and the benefits and disadvantages associated with the different wig options. Wigs can be made of human hair, synthetic hair, or a combination of the two.

Human hair wigs are a luxurious and versatile option. They can be cut, colored, and styled just like regular hair, and with appropriate care they can last several years. Whereas I opted for a synthetic wig, a friend of mine who had been diagnosed within months of my own diagnosis chose a human hair wig. It looked a lot like her natural hair and was even affixed to her head with an adhesive, allowing her to sleep and shower in it. Although she did not have the worry of her hair blowing off or going askew, I did not think that a permanent attachment to my head would work for itchy, fidgety me. When my friend looks back, she recalls some of the downsides to her beautiful, natural hair wig, such as the daily maintenance and styling and, most of all, the price. Because of the cost of human hair wigs, some survivors are inclined to hang on to their wigs for life.

Synthetic wigs are much more affordable and have come a long way in giving a natural appearance. They are lightweight, are prestyled, and offer a quick and easy option. Some patients take this opportunity to try out a new look and have fun with it! The drawbacks to synthetic wigs are that they are not as versatile in styling as human hair wigs, they do not last as long, and they require special products for care and maintenance.

Although wigs can offer a sufficient solution for some patients, they do not quite work for others. Many women experience treatment-induced hot flashes that make wigs very uncomfortable. Some find it easier to wear a breathable and easily adjustable hat or scarf. Ultimately, most women opt for some combination of wigs, hats, and scarves, alternating among them depending on their needs.

Scarves, turbans, and hats have gone through a dramatic transformation in the past several years in meeting the needs of cancer patients. The prints and styles of years past were either very unfashionable or, at best, conjured images of a 1930’s movie starlet. If you could find a beautiful scarf, knowing how to tie it yourself to provide full coverage was another challenge. These days a variety of beautiful and stylish scarves are available, and there are online tutorials on how to tie them as well as in-person tutorials through the American Cancer Society’s Look Good Feel Better program. There are also many presewn and pretied scarves and turbans, offering beautiful and hip new options designed to address the limited style and coverage issues long faced by cancer patients in search of headwear.

Hats have always been an easy solution, but they too have the drawback of not fully covering the hairline. To address this issue, I used to cut off old T-shirt sleeves and wear those on my head under my hats. This was an inexpensive way to cover my otherwise exposed hairline. It also helped the hat fit better and more comfortably against my skin. Today there are hats designed to address these issues. One company even offers a human hair option: you can send in your own hair, and they will attach your hair to one of their hats and send it back within a few days’ time.

Bald Is Beautiful! A new and growing trend among cancer survivors is to keep it real and bare it all! This option takes extra courage, but it also comes with its own rewards. Janet Poelsma is one of those patients who chose to forgo any head covering while going through treatment. This was especially brave for someone working in a corporate environment with more than 200 employees. “Because I chose to show the world my bald head, cancer was out of the closet.” She said that reactions from people varied. Overall, people were kind, and it made her feel supported and empowered. She said, “I hope my bold confidence can change another sister’s feelings on not hiding her head.”

Henna crowns or tattoos are another alternative for head adornment. This ancient art long associated with enhancing the beauty of women is now being used by cancer patients. Their bald heads become the canvas for intricate designs painted using herbal henna. Henna crowns help many cancer patients feel confident, beautiful, and adorned. Although they are called henna tattoos, no pricking with needles is involved as in regular body tattoos. It is recommended that henna crowns be applied with natural brown dye by trained artists and that black henna dye should be avoided.

“I don't consider myself bald, I'm just taller than my hair.”
Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Although hair loss is among the biggest fears for cancer patients, once the hair is gone many find that losing it was not nearly as difficult as the anticipation of losing it was. In fact, many of us manage to enjoy some of the perks that come with it, like saving money from not having to go to the hair salon, quicker showers, and less time and effort needed to get ready in the morning. Some women enjoy the opportunity to try new looks and new styles with their wigs and scarves, while others feel newly empowered by their boldly honest and bald look. I am not sure what choices I would make if I were faced with hair loss today, but I know that comfort, confidence, and cost would still be my guideposts. To assist your patients in finding what options are best for them, I leave you with these tips to pass on.

Money-Saving Tips

  • Check with your insurance company about your policy’s coverage for hair prosthesis and the proper steps for coverage
  • Research organizations that offer free wigs, scarves, and hats for cancer patients

Wig-Shopping Tips

  • Shop before your hair falls out
  • Take a friend and make a shopping day of it
  • Search for wig stores with private consultation rooms
  • Choose a shop with a large selection of styles, lengths, and colors
  • For those who already have a good idea of the brand, color, style, and length they are looking for, shop online

Things to Consider When Selecting a Wig or Head Covering

  • Cost
  • Styling and maintenance
  • Versatility
  • A look that brings joy and confidence (and maybe that means trying something new!)

Email me at angela@breastinvestigators.com if you would like a free list of hair loss and headwear resources for cancer patients.

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Last modified: February 28, 2014