Shortly after my first round of chemo, I (correctly!) presumed that it was time to figure out how (the f-bomb!) to buy a chemo wig because I knew that being bald-bald-bald was inevitable. As you may recall, hair loss occurs because chemotherapy targets all rapidly dividing cells—healthy cells as well as cancer cells.
Hair follicles are the structures in the skin filled with tiny blood vessels that make hair. They are some of the fastest-growing cells in the body. When not in cancer treatment, hair follicles divide every 23 to 72 hours. But as the chemo does its work against rapidly dividing and growing cancer cells, it also destroys hair cells. Within a few weeks of starting chemo (in my case 2 weeks), a person may lose some or all of the hair.
At this point, there really is no known, proven prevention for hair loss due to chemotherapy. Attempts have been made (and continue to be made) to reduce hair loss by using tight bands or ice caps. The tight bands didn’t really work, but there is a great deal of hope around a new type of ice cap. It’s no quite there yet, but my friends at Breastcancer.org tell me that this could really be the real deal (Silver Lining).
In the meantime, (thanks to the request of a reader!) I thought I’d share my process for buying a wig:
- Figure out your budget. Wigs range in price anywhere from $50 – thousands! Some insurance companies cover the cost (in part or completely). If not, there are organizations that give them to patients for free (Silver Lining):
- Determine what type of hair you want. Generally, there are two types:
- Synthetic Hair. This type of wig is made from strands that are created from polymers. Generally, synthetic wigs can hold a style through wear and shampoo. You must be careful, though because there are many types of synthetic wigs that can easily melt near heat sources (and you DON’T want to add that to your list of issues!). Kanekalon is a type of synthetic hair that can be styled with a curling iron.
- Human Hair. These wigs are made from real human hair (or a mix of human and animal – yes, animal – hair) that has been donated or sold to wig makers. These types of wigs can be colored, permed, cut, styled, and blow-dried, just like your own hair. This was the type of wig that I had.
- I highly recommend, if at all possible, to shop for your wig before chemotherapy begins. This will allow you some time to get used to the look of your wig and help you to feel more “normal” (go ahead and laugh at the word normal) while wearing it. You will also have more energy for the shopping process and your stylist will be able to get a true feel for your coloring and complexion. But here’s the thing: Don’t actually buy it or have it styled until your hair loss has started because it will definitely affect how it fits you.
- When it comes to color, my hairstylist recommended selecting a shade slightly lighter than my own for two reasons: 1) a person’s complexion during chemotherapy tends to be off (my skin often had a beauteous yellowish-green tone) and 2) the less variation between wig color and skin tone, the more flattering the wig will be.
- Determine your look. Do you want to look like your “old” self or try a whole new look. I have worn short – very short! – hair for the past few years and decided to try something different in the form of a bob. I kept my same hair color and texture, but went for length. It was kind of fun, actually. Here’s a funny story: the first night that I wore the wig, I went out to dinner with a girlfriend. Our waiter (whom I know!) said to me, “You look different. Did you get your hair cut?” I burst out laughing and told him that “No, I grew it 8 inches overnight.” I mean, really. What else was I going to say?
- In terms of upkeep (yes, there is upkeep!), plan to shampoo, condition and dry your wig using special wig products. Speaking of which, there are wig specific brushes as well. I was blown away by this industry! Geesh! Also inquire about whether or not it’s ok to use styling devices as you don’t want to have your hair melt. The general rule of thumb is that it’s best to ask your stylist what will be best for your wig.
One very very very important point: not all chemotherapy causes hair loss. So, before you shave your head and buy a wig, please talk with your oncologist about whether hair loss is anticipated. I knew from the get go, that hair loss for me was pretty much a sure thing!
I hope that this helps! Do you have any tips or helpful hints that you would like to share?
* Photograph of Nataska taken by my friend Elizabeth Messina.