If you've been diagnosed with cancer and are going to be treated with chemotherapy, chances are you have lots of questions about what to expect. One that tops the list for many people: "Am I going to lose my hair?"
The likelihood of that happening depends on the specific drug regimen prescribed. But the reality is that while not everyone who receives chemotherapy ends up bald, many do. And although some take hair loss in stride, it's not unusual to feel profoundly sad or anxious about the possibility of losing your hair.
"I've met thousands of women [going through breast cancer treatment] over the past 10 years, and so many have told me that losing their hair was harder than losing their breasts," says Martino Cartier, a high-profile hairstylist and salon owner in Sewell, New Jersey, and the founder of Wigs & Wishes, a nonprofit that provides free wigs to women battling cancer.
The good news is that there are more options to help people deal with chemo-related hair loss than ever before. Some women try cold cap therapy, a type of therapy in which you wear a cap infused with coolant that reduces the flow of chemo to your hair follicles.
Others proudly go bald. Turbans, hats, and scarves have become more popular in recent years. And wigs, a longtime standby, now come in a wide range of natural-looking styles, says Linda Whitehurst, national project director for Look Good Feel Better, a charitable arm of the Professional Beauty Association.
Here are eight expert tips for finding a wig you'll love.
1. Choose a New Look or Keep Your Current Do
While the safest choice is a wig that fits your current style, some women take wig shopping to the next level — to explore a totally new look. This could mean going blond for the first time or trying something for shock value, like dark cobalt blue. If you want to experiment with different styles or colors, buy more than one wig so you can change depending on your mood, your outfit, or the occasion.
2. Want to Stick With Your Look? Find a Picture of a Good Hair Day
If you want to stay with your current style, share a picture of yourself on a great hair day, advises Cartier. "We tell women to send us a picture of when they loved their hair's color, texture, and length," so the organization can try to match it.
3. Finding a Wig That Matches Your Hair Texture Will Require Research
Black women often have a hard time finding wigs that match Black hair color or texture. A majority of available wigs, particularly those covered by insurance, have straight hair rather than curly or kinky hair, leaving some women no choice but to spend hundreds of dollars to have a wig made. For this reason, a few organizations are now helping Black women find a wig that suits them.
After being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015, Dianne Austin was inspired to cofound Coils to Locs, an organization that sells wigs wholesale to hospitals and hair salons. Although its wigs aren’t available directly through the organization, you can ask your local salon or hospital if it offers any Coils to Locs wigs, or reach out to the organization to connect it to your salon or hospital.
For the Breast of Us seeks to assist and empower women of color battling cancer. Cofounded by CEO Marissa Thomas following her own cancer diagnosis, the organization does not directly give away or sell wigs but instead offers advice on how to find wigs and resources for women of color.
4. Consider Cutting Your Hair Short
Most people who end up losing their hair find that it starts falling out two to four weeks after the first chemo infusion. Before cutting your hair, make sure you clarify whether your treatment causes hair loss, as not all chemo causes hair loss.
Whitehurst generally advises women to cut their hair shorter before that happens, noting that "it's horrific when hair starts coming out if it's long and tangled."
Cartier, on the other hand, says that if you have long hair and will be getting an equally long wig, getting a pixie cut might be a mistake, because your hair will look short for a few weeks before it suddenly looks long again (thanks to the wig). Instead, he suggests waiting until your hair starts to thin before you wear your wig.
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5. Shave Your Head Before You Rock Your Wig
Whether you wear a short do or not, when it's time to put on your wig, you're going to have to buzz your head. "The correct way to do it is to use a men's clipper and take the guard off, which is called a zero and will give you a five-o'clock shadow," says Cartier. Don't use a regular (nonelectric) razor, which can cause ingrown hairs and irritation.
Whitehurst agrees that standard razors are a no-no: "It's amazing how many doctors tell women [undergoing chemo] not to shave their legs but forget to tell them not to shave their head," she says. Regularly shaving your head can also prevent locks falling out while sleeping, which can cause irritation and itchiness on the scalp.
6. Figure Out How — or if — You’re Going to Pay for It
Wigs can cost anywhere from $30 to several thousand dollars. Although a high-priced wig often means better quality, most solid synthetic wigs are under $500. (Wigs made of human hair are more expensive.)
If you're planning to foot the bill yourself, aim to visit a wig salon, because it's hard to get the fit and color right when shopping online, says Whitehurst. If you must shop online, make sure the store has a good return policy.
Before you dig into your own wallet, check to see if you’re eligible to get a wig for free or at a reduced cost. First, contact your health insurance company, as it might cover or subsidize wigs (aka cranial prostheses) for cancer patients. You can also ask your local hospital or infusion center if they know about any "wig banks” in the area: During these pop-up events, cancer patients try on and select free wigs that have been donated (or paid for by a fundraiser), says Whitehurst.
The American Cancer Society (ACS) sells affordable wigs through its not-for-profit website and catalog called TLC (Tender Loving Care). People who can't afford to buy a wig can call the ACS cancer helpline (800-227-2345); you'll either be directed to a wig bank in your area or given a gift certificate so you can order a wig through TLC.
Some nonprofits provide wigs to cancer patients totally free of charge. Cartier's Wigs & Wishes is one of them: The organization is based at his salon in New Jersey, but it has a national and international network and will ship wigs all over the world. (Women send in pictures and the organization selects wigs for them.)
Another organization to look into is Hair We Share, which relies on hair donations to provide wigs at no cost to women, men, and children throughout the United States. Formed by a cosmetologist in 2014, the nonprofit seeks to restore confidence in people who have lost their hair due to any medical condition. Children 18 and younger with a medical condition are provided a wig for free, whereas adults over 18 are asked to provide proof of need of financial support.
You may also want to explore EBeauty Community, which runs a free wig exchange program (survivors donate used wigs, which get refreshed and sent to patients), and the Verma Foundation, which gives away free cap wigs (baseball caps with soft linings and hair attached to them) each month. Its application cycle starts over on the 15th of every month and requires documentation regarding your income and medical status, and the foundation will reply to your request within a week following the end of each application cycle.
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7. Weigh the Pros and Cons of Wearing a Synthetic Wig vs. a Natural Wig
Unlike natural (human hair) wigs, synthetic ones easily hold their style and don't have to be washed as often. "A woman going through chemo doesn't want to have to wash and style a wig three times a week," says Cartier. Synthetic wigs also tend to be lighter and don't frizz up on humid days. Other characteristics to look for include a lace front, which will help your hairline look more natural, and a monofilament cap, which is sheer and stretchy and contains individually knotted fibers, says Whitehurst.
Despite simpler maintenance, synthetic wigs do not last as long, often tangle, and have less flexibility when it comes to styling. If you prefer a synthetic wig, be sure to consider how long you plan on wearing it. Or plan to get multiple wigs and change them up over time.
While natural hair wigs require more maintenance, they do last longer and can be styled, cut, or dyed just like your natural hair. But they do react to warm weather by either losing shape and style or going frizzy. If you choose to use a natural hair wig, be sure to consider the climate you live in.
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8. Learn How to Wear, Style, and Care for Your Wig
Wearing a wig isn't complicated, but proper alignment is key. "New wig wearers tend to have it too far down on their face," says Whitehurst. "You need to push it back to where your original hairline was for it to look natural."
Whether you opt for a synthetic or natural wig, learn how to care for your wig — seek out special wig care products and wash a daily used wig every other week. Be sure to follow specific instructions on caring for your wig. Look Good Feel Better offers free hair-covering workshops that go over these sorts of details. You can search for one in your area or sign up for a virtual workshop.
Cancer comes with a lot of changes, but if you choose the right wig and wear it correctly, your sense of style doesn't have to suffer. "Oftentimes a woman will walk into the salon shaking and crying, so fearful of what's to come, but we can turn that around," says Cartier. "Ninety percent of them say, 'It looks better than my own hair.'"