My poor mother often reminds me how, when I was a kid, I used to torment her and the hairdresser when it was time for a haircut (apparently the hairdresser needed a Valium beforehand). If my hair was even slightly too short or cut in a way that was not exactly what I had envisioned, I would hide in my room for weeks, completely miserable. I’m embarrassed to say that I still carry on this trait, but now I’m much better at managing my emotions and my hairdresser actually welcomes my visit.
But when I had breast cancer and was about to start chemotherapy, needless to say, the thought of losing my hair was terrifying. I’ve been through cancer twice: The first time I was given a chemo regimen called CMF and didn’t lose my hair. But I wasn’t so fortunate the second time around when, three years out from my first diagnosis, I discovered a lump under my arm, a small tumor considered a local recurrence. This time, I would lose my hair to chemo. I learned a lot about myself through this physical change — mostly how insistent I became at finding new ways to look and feel like myself. Here’s what I learned, in the hopes it may help you:
Find out your options. When I knew I would need a wig, I started by doing a little research and found a few wig places with stylists that deal specifically with cancer patients. These places usually have private rooms for trying on wigs and a staff that is sensitive to the needs of people dealing with hair loss. Many hospitals also have salons you can go to. Remember, if you plan on wearing a wig, it’s really important to have it ready before your hair actually comes out, which is usually 3 to 4 weeks after your first treatment. Also, if your hair is long, it’s definitely an easier transition emotionally if you cut it in stages.
Decide whether you want to go synthetic or natural. The price range for buying a wig is huge. The synthetic ones are much less expensive and are fine, they look good, they’re easier to wash and care for, and they’re affordable enough that most women can have a few different looks. The natural-hair wigs are more expensive, but you can highlight and dye them like your own hair. (Did you know that insurance sometimes pays for wigs? Find out if yours will cover the cost).
Make sure you have the necessary accoutrements, like the wig stand (it attaches to a table for stability while you style it, and this is where your wig will “live” when you are not wearing it. I felt a bit self-conscious about leaving mine out so I put it on the shelf in my closet when I wasn’t busy playing with it to get it looking as much like my own hair style as possible; I cut the bangs a bit too short, and since this hair doesn’t grow back, there is no room for error, therefore from experience, I do not recommend cutting your wig by yourself.) And don’t forget the oh-so-lovely toupé tape you will need to keep your wig on your head. This part is annoying and felt ridiculous at times (putting men’s hairpiece tape on my head), but you have no choice. I found that the way I taped my wig to my head was key to it looking natural on me. Make sure the tape is in the right place: Close to the outer part of your head so that the line between your hair and your face is as flat as possible. But let’s face it, it’s hard to feel like yourself when you have a wig taped to your head. I discovered a few things that helped:
For the natural look: Wear your wig like you wear your own hair. If you wear clips in your hair, wear them in your wig. I kept my wig a bit messy, like I normally wear my hair and that definitely worked to help me feel like myself. Unless you’re someone who wears a perfectly quaffed hairdo, then don’t start now; keep it styled the way you always do. Use your same hair products and dry it as you normally do. Wearing scarves and hats are great (with your wig on); they help you feel secure (that your wig won’t move) and can be really stylish and fun!
For a bolder look: If and when you’re ready, try putting on your favorite outfit and a little makeup and bare that beautiful head of yours. It’s amazing how much positive attention you’ll get, especially from other women. I was bald over the summer and on a really hot day I decided to brave it (at first in a part of town where I didn’t know anyone), and I have to admit, I felt pretty styling. I felt more feminine than I thought I ever would. And a few weeks later, I braved it and went out in my own neighborhood, wig-free. I felt liberated! As I walked down the street, I received so many beautiful smiles of support from the faces I saw every day.
Looking natural with a wig on was really important for me. I mastered the art of it, which helped me get through a lot of the fear of looking like a “cancer patient.” But to liberate myself and go out bald after trying so hard to look “normal” felt even better.
Lori Benson is the director of the film, “DearTalula,” a documentary chronicling her experience of breast cancer. Lori travels the country sharing her story and using her movie to start a dialogue on critical issues, such as the emotional aspects of breast cancer and the role of family history.
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Originally published in October 2008