2007-02-28 / Lifestyles

American Cancer Society offers wigs for cancer patients

by JILL SCHMELZER Reporter

Imagine it: the unthinkable has occurred. Your doctor has just diagnosed you with cancer, and the words "chemotherapy" and "radiation" keep entering the dialogue.

So much must be going through your brain as you wonder what will happen next. The thought of losing your hair should be the last thing on your mind but is often one of the first.

The American Cancer Society has a program whereby women who have just been diagnosed or are undergoing treatment can visit the facility and receive a free wig from Mary's Wig Room.

The program began in 1996 when an ACS employee was diagnosed with breast cancer. Mary, who has since lost her battle with the disease, was mortified that there weren't wigs for women with cancer.

She took it upon herself to find wig donations and made them available to cancer patients, said Nancy Hanavan, senior director of cancer control and patient and family services.

At first, Mary kept the faux hair in a large tote, but because donations were limited, there were few styles to choose from. The program grew when friends, who have survived cancer, volunteered to help.

They took over a portion of a storage room at ACS and equipped it with a mirror donated by Twin City Glass and a counter from Home Depot, Hanavan said.

A designated Wig Room was added to the building at 100 John James Audubon Parkway when it was reconstructed about five years ago, Hanavan said.

Cancer patients can now come to the facility, meet with a volunteer, and try on new hairdos that are similar to their look before the cancer treatments or a completely different style.

"It's a chance for them to try on any style they'd like," said volunteer Cathy Gress.

All of the volunteers who work in the Wig Room are cancer survivors, which allows the patient to relate to someone who has survived the disease.

Throughout the years, the selection has become diverse in styles, colors and cuts. There are also wigs for women of color, said Hanavan. A portion of the proceeds from the ACS Mother's Day Walk in Lockport goes to purchasing wigs for the program.

The walk, started by Mary's family members, is entering its 11th year.

The wigs are made of synthetic hair because it is easier to maintain and wash.

"Human hair wigs require a lot of upkeep," said Elaine S. Duquette, the ACS's director of media relations. She noted that the program is not affiliated with Locks of Love, an organization that donates human-hair wigs to children suffering mainly from alopecia.

"It is important that everyone gets a brand new wig," Hanavan said, noting that the program does not distribute used wigs.

The locks are purchased from Paula Young, a wig company.

Every woman in the region battling the deadly disease has the opportunity to receive one wig from the society, Hanavan said, adding that special arrangements can be made for those who cannot make the trip to the facility in Amherst.

The women who come to the office visit with a volunteer in a one-hour scheduled appointment. The private session is used to find a style that fits the individual in need of the services.

First, the volunteer asks the woman to put on a cap for sanitary purposes. Then the head is measured to determine what size wig she needs - petite, average or large.

Gress, who has been a survivor for 17 years, explained that there are Velcro tabs that enable the person to tighten or loosen the wig, so it doesn't slide forward or fall off.

She said there are two tabs that are to be placed over each temple, which tells the woman the hair is on straight.

Gress also tells the women to put the bangs of the wig right to the hairline, so it's convincing that it is the patient's real hair.

"We want it to look like you," she told a recent breast cancer patient who visited the Wig Room.

She then gives the woman a packet of information about how to maintain the wig and the other programs ACS has to offer, such as the Reach to Recovery and Look Good ... Feel Better.

To schedule an appointment for the Wig Room, call 1.800.ACS.2345.

e-mail: JSchmelzer@beenews.com

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