When Helen Pomilio had breast cancer six years ago, she wore a beautiful wig during her treatment.
"People never knew I was wearing a wig unless I told them," she said, adding that it cost $300.
Feeling fine now and inspired to help others with what can be one of the more traumatic issues of a cancer diagnosis -- hair loss from chemotherapy, Mrs. Pomilio volunteers in the Free Wig Salon at Jefferson Regional Medical Center in Jefferson Hills.
The salon opened in late October and has fitted more than two dozen women cancer patients with new wigs -- for free.
There are no strings attached, Mrs. Pomilio said. Patients do not have to have insurance or a doctor's referral. The only requirement is they must be undergoing a cancer treatment that causes hair loss.
The salon is supplied by the American Cancer Society's Free Wig Salon program and carries both synthetic and human hair wigs. A human hair wig from a traditional salon can cost an average of about $1,000 and synthetic wigs average $300, Mrs. Pomilio said.
"Patients have told me that losing their hair is worse than having a cancer surgery or losing their breast because it's so public," said Brenda Cline, a nurse at Jefferson who runs the salon.
"This service is really about the patient," she said. "They are very nervous when they walk in, but when they leave, they're relieved. They think, 'This is going to be OK.' "
When patients begin to lose their hair, many cut it short or even shave it off and then choose a wig, she said.
The process of selecting a wig is something they have control over and it makes a world of difference, Mrs. Pomilio noted.
The women may chose from the salon's inventory of about three dozen wigs. Most wigs are adjustable, and the salon has a variety of colors and styles.
"If they can't find what they are looking for here, then we can refer them to another salon in the area," Ms. Cline said.
The salon's homey setting -- "decorated on a shoestring budget," Mrs. Pomilio said -- is also a comfort to the patients, who often are anxious.
The space, a former doctor's office and reception area, was transformed for about $700, money supplied by the Jefferson Regional Medical Center Foundation. Employees who can sew created valences for the windows and draped fabric to enhance the wig display. Furniture, bought at discount stores, was reupholstered. Lamps and pictures were purchased at thrift shops, and the walls were painted.
Jefferson's salon is the only one in the South Hills. Five others are in Allegheny County, including one at Forbes Regional Hospital in Monroeville and at Allegheny Valley Hospital in the Natrona Heights section of Harrison.
The salon serves any woman, from any town, "even if you are visiting from another city on vacation," Mrs. Pomilio said.
To make an appointment: 800-227-2345 or www.cancer.org.neigh_east - neigh_south
Laurie Bailey, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.