During Chemo, a Search for the Perfect Wig

Plus Wig Tips From the Roswell Park Pros
Tuesday, August 28, 2018 - 8:49am

“I didn’t think losing my hair was going to be emotionally traumatic, but it was.” As she waits for a wig-styling appointment in Roswell Park’s Resource Center for Patients and Families, sarcoma patient Cara Evans-Kaplan explains what brought her here today.

Some women undergoing cancer treatment “are ready to rock being bald,” she acknowledges. But she didn’t feel that way. Her blonde hair once fell past her shoulders, and the thought of losing it hit hard. To soften the impact, at first she cut it short. When it began to fall out, she had her head shaved, and then “for a long time I wore scarves.”

Lately Cara has been wearing a baseball cap with hair attached inside the rim, but she’s ready to change her look. She came to Roswell Park for a medical appointment today and decided to stop by the Resource Center to pick up a new wig she ordered, and to have it customized by one of two hairstylists who visit the center every week.

The Wig & Hat Boutique

Thanks to donations to the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation, the wig and styling are free of charge. All cancer patients in Western New York who are losing their hair due to current cancer treatment — including men! — may choose one wig each year, at no cost, and also order a second wig at the wholesale cost of $50. In addition, each person may choose one free head covering per year, when they are available.

The Resource Center displays some of the choices on mannequin heads that line the wall: wigs with hair long and short, curly and straight, light and dark, even funky electric pink — as well as chic turbans, newsboy caps, Indiana Jones hats, sunhats with wide brims, and fringed scarves. Sometimes the selections include Sabres caps donated by New Era or purchased with funds from the Alliance Foundation — and they always go fast. 

Tucked into a corner of the center, the Wig & Hat Boutique provides a private space to try on different styles. “There’s such a vulnerability at this time for our patients,” says Resource Center Coordinator Martha Hickey. So the boutique is designed for “a little bit of a spa feel,” relaxing and comforting. A diffuser sends soothing scents into the air. Lights glow within a basket of pink salt rocks. “And we have giveaways of makeup and lots of treats,” adds Martha.

The Resource Center can order any style wig in a range of colors from the Henry Margu collection. It takes about 10 days for the wig to arrive, and then it’s time for styling — because wigs, it turns out, aren’t ready to wear right off the shelf. They come with lots of extra hair that needs to be thinned, trimmed and sometimes layered. That’s where professional hairstylists Jeff Lindner and LaFondra Martin come in: They customize the wigs for each person, to suit “the shape of the head, the shape of the face,” says LaFondra.

Martha says that while most men choose a hat and cozy sleeping cap, some prefer wigs. They can choose one of the standard wigs for women, which the hairdressers cut and shape into a style to suit a man. 

“A Spiritual Experience”

Jeff began styling wigs for cancer patients, free of charge, 20 years ago. “Cancer has touched my family,” he explains. “That’s how I got started. One day I called Roswell Park and offered my services for anyone who had lost their hair and got a wig. They could come to my shop and get a free haircut.” Nearly four years ago, he began providing the service in the Resource Center, still as a volunteer. With the program's growing popularity, in 2015 the Alliance Foundation provided the Resource Center with a Quality of Life grant to expand the styling services for patients, making it possible to bring Jeff in more frequently, add LaFondra to the team, and compensate both of them. 

A hairdresser for 30 years, LaFondra has styled wigs for cancer patients for the past year and a half. “I had a brother who had cancer when he was a child, and he lost his hair,” she recalls. “I used to buy wigs and cut them for him.

“I’ve had a beauty salon for many years. I just love people, and I love for people to look beautiful.”

Cara slips into Jeff’s chair and gets a first look at herself in her new wig. Together she and Jeff adjust the cap. Jeff studies a photo Cara shows him of how she looked before she lost her hair, and then he gets to work. After years of experience, “I have the ability to transform people into what they used to look like with hair, and it’s amazing,” he says. “To me it’s a spiritual experience.”

Cara faces the mirror, takes a good look at herself, and smiles. “This is a great place,” she says. “People come in at different emotional levels, and it’s very welcoming.

“Everybody here makes you feel comfortable in your own skin again.”

Ready to try a hat or wig? Visit the Resource Center for Patients and Families, located on the first floor of the hospital in the Sunflower Café, Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.

To make an appointment for wig styling, call the Resource Center at 716-845-8659. Jeff Lindner visits on alternating weeks, from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Monday and noon-3 p.m. Wednesday. LaFondra Martin visits on Tuesdays from 9 a.m.-1 p.m.

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Wig Tips From the Pros at Roswell Park

  • The Magic of Baby Powder: “Most wigs are synthetic, so they’ve got that really shiny, plastic look,” says Jeff. “Sprinkle a little baby powder on it, and that will take the shine out.”
  • A Romantic, Windblown Look: Set your blow dryer to Cool and “kind of mess it up to make it look a little more natural,” advises Jeff.
  • Shampoo It, Baby: Your head sweats, and the wig cap soaks up that perspiration. LaFondra suggests shampooing the wig as needed with baby shampoo and lukewarm water, “just lightly, and be sure to get under the cap.” After rinsing, put it on a wig head or wig stand to dry.
  • Chill Out: Keep your synthetic wig away from heat, warns LaFondra. “Even the heat outside can singe it and make the hair stick together. And don’t cook in it!”
  • Blurring the Lines: Martha points out that each wig features a translucent lace band at the front, where the wig touches the natural hairline, and applying makeup to the band can help soften the line between wig and forehead. “We tell the ladies to put a little foundation on the band,” she says, “and then you really can’t tell it’s a wig.”
  • Perfect Fit: While some people might want to try on wigs before losing their hair, a wig will fit better after the hair is gone. The Resource Center hairstylists are happy to accommodate patients who are beginning to lose their hair and would like to have it shaved off.