Women going through certain kinds of chemotherapy for breast, uterine and other cancers all know the secret: That first clump of loose hair in your fist or on the pillow has a way of suddenly making the disease a reality.
You have cancer.
But, those who lose their hair to chemotherapy treatments almost always regrow it eventually, doctors say, and now the American Cancer Society has teamed with several local hospitals and organizations to offer free wigs to women undergoing cancer treatment.
Previously, the cancer society offered needy patients a voucher for $60 off the cost of a hairpiece, a service rarely covered by health insurance even though wigs range in price from about $350 for a good synthetic wig to as much as $1,000 for one made with human hair.
Three years ago, the group decided to establish wig banks where patients could select from dozens of new wigs at no cost, regardless of income. Wigs can even be specially ordered and altered if necessary, also at no cost.
"They are purchased wigs -- all new wigs," said Patti Patterson, senior director for community engagement for the cancer society. "Some are synthetic and some are real hair."
Ms. Patterson said the agency tries to establish wig banks wherever they feel a need exists. In Allegheny County, the cancer society offers banks at nine locations, with no plans to open more. In outlying counties, including Beaver, Butler, Fayette and Greene, there is one wig bank available per county. Washington and Westmoreland counties each have two banks.
Support groups and a workshop
The cancer society also sponsors support groups and a program called "Look Good ... Feel Better," a workshop by professionals, who teach women how to understand and care for skin and hair changes that may occur during treatment.
The wig banks are stocked with about two dozen wigs in the most popular styles, cuts and colors, along with turbans and knitted hats.
"We're constantly looking at who's doing volume and who isn't," Ms. Patterson said. "We've closed locations and reopened some in other areas where there is more need."
The cancer society wig banks serve about 10,000 women each year, and Ms. Patterson hopes to increase that number, improving the lives of more cancer survivors.
"In an ideal world, we'd love to touch every newly diagnosed person in Western Pennsylvania, and that's more than 20,000," she said of cancer diagnosis rates in this area.
One of the more popular new programs is at St. Clair Hospital in Mt. Lebanon, which has outfitted 30 patients from as far north as Cranberry with wigs since the program started in April.
The private salon is staffed by a group of eight volunteers, led by Georgianne K. Williams, the director of volunteer services at St. Clair.
"We're really enthusiastic about our program," said Ms. Williams of Mt. Lebanon. "We're inspired by the women who come in. And we're happy to be just a small part of it."
Some of the volunteers at St. Clair are helping out to honor a loved one.
"It's very rewarding to me as a volunteer," said Sue Glinka. "I went through this with my own mother 16 years ago."
One of their clients, Jennifer Dunn of Collier, was diagnosed with stage 1 uterine cancer in January and lost her hair during chemotherapy treatments this summer.
"I was blown away," said Ms. Dunn, 45, the married mother of two teenage girls. "I was so scared."
Like most patients, she found out her insurance wouldn't cover a hairpiece and contacted the cancer society for guidance.
At first, Ms. Dunn tried purchasing a wig through an online auction. But the wig was slightly damaged and not her style. She turned to the free salon at St. Clair and said she was more than satisfied with the result.
"I think it was wonderful," she said of her new blond locks. "The wig is very nice."
And of course, the best part about it, she said, is that friends can't tell she's wearing a wig.
Appointments with cancer patients are conducted privately at the wig banks, though family members are encouraged to come for moral support.
Another wig bank is offered at West Penn Hospital in Bloomfield, where volunteers have seen about 40 clients since it began last year, said Sue Mull, a social worker in the hospital's oncology department.
Ms. Mull said she has seen women from all over the Pittsburgh region, even those who aren't patients at West Penn.
"It's not based on where you get your treatment," she said. "People come based on what is convenient for them."
The West Penn wig bank also offers something unique: wigs for in-patient clients who are receiving ongoing treatments.
The selection of wig types and colors is varied, Ms. Mull said.
"We have a really good selection here, but if there's something we can't find, we can call ACS, or the client can go to another bank," she said.
Volunteers at West Penn work with another organization, Hair Peace Charities, to help style and cut wigs when necessary.
CBS traffic anchor Bonny Diver founded the nonprofit after she overcame stage 1 breast cancer in 2003. A lump in her breast was found after she fell off her horse, Romeo, and injured her shoulder.
"That was a huge shock to me," said Ms. Diver, 56, of Avalon. "[Romeo] actually saved my life."
Ms. Diver went through the typical routine of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, then purchased a wig for several hundred dollars.
After her treatments, the Columbus, Ohio, native wanted to find a way to help other patients who were struggling.
"My surgeon actually inspired me," she recalled. "I thought, 'Wow, this is something I can do.' "
She and her supporters raise about $100,000 per year for the organization, which provides grants of up to $150 for wigs, hairpieces or salon services. Any woman living in the 412 or 724 area code is eligible, and Ms. Diver also includes a packet of information for clients, including inspirational and instructional books.
The organization sponsors a support group at 7:30 p.m. the third Wednesday of each month at Ingomar United Methodist Church in Franklin Park, and its major fundraiser each February is Recipe for Hope, a celebrity cook-off.
Though cancer treatments are, of course, serious business, volunteers try to keep the mood light at the wig banks, concentrating on the positive.
"By the time we're done fitting a wig, we're hugging," Ms. Glinka said. "A friendship develops."
There are also no pity parties among patients in Ms. Diver's group, which has increased from one or two per year in 2004 to 400 new clients expected this year.
"I'm very passionate about it," she said. "It's letting people know that they're not alone. They are survivors."
Ms. Williams recalled an instance when a younger woman going through treatment brought along her husband to gauge his opinion of her new locks and look.
"He said, 'You look just as beautiful as the day I married you,' " she said. "It was such a wonderful, perfect thing to say."
Patients can make appointments at any of the banks, and get more information, by contacting ACS at 800-227-2345. To locate a wig bank near you, visit ACS at www.cancer.org.
For more information about Ms. Diver's Hair Peace Charities, call 412-327-5177 or visit www.hairpeace.org.
Janice Crompton: email@example.com or 412-851-1867. First Published October 16, 2013 8:00 PM