Hair Undone

Wigs for people undergoing cancer treatment are big business, costing upwards of $5,000-a-piece and supported by a national network of non-profits, retail salons and annual fundraisers, but the coronavirus has halted the industry, leaving some small start-ups and non-profits to close and patients, in some cases, left without a custom wig.

Non-profit Locks of Love donates 400 wigs a year but donations are down 25%.

Pantene Beautiful Lengths relies on funds raised from the Relay for Life program “but we’re already cancelling these,” a spokesman confirmed. They made 1,200 real wigs for Chicago cancer patients in 2019, all from Relay funding.

In Omaha, Fresh Hair salon for people with cancer to get the right wig fit is closed “until further notice,” says Fiona Ford, herself a cancer survivor.

Wigs for Kids in Ohio partners with area salons who give people discounts on hair cut donations. “I have 20-30 cuts a week just for this,” says Pam Kleary. But the salon, and others in nearby, are closed. Part of the reason people come to the salons is hairdressers like Kleary know just the right hair length wig makers need.

Not all operations have ceased. Headcovers Unlimited is filling orders from Texas but telling people “to be patient” as the supply chain has slowed. A Dana Farber Cancer Institute customer rep says they are “taking calls” but fundraising from a cancelled bicycle challenge raising $40 million annually will drop. Several women whose daughters underwent treatment for Leukemia ride in the event and created the Pink Wig Gang. They wear pink wigs during the ride and, since 2009, have raised $90,000 for real-hair wigs.

A bounceback seems likely but more important and more costly and will require more help from non-profits and fundraising events. For one, most people are avoiding doctors, particularly primary care offices where hidden symptoms of cancer can be detected. “Leukemia symptoms like bruising don’t always show up so with [primary care physician] visits down there have been fewer physicals, which means fewer CBCs ordered—reducing the likelihood that a physician could catch an abnormal blood count,” says Susan Buchanan, who was an adult Leukemia physician assistant during the 2009 economic downturn. The number of people able to give to wig charities is likely to diminish and the number of people without insurance will drop. Anthem, one of the largest healthcare insurers, estimates around 30% of its members are losing insurance and going to Medicaid or state health plan exchanges. Some of these don’t cover the cost of wigs.

Real hair for cancer patients is more costly vs. synthetic, but also much more popular, a consumer poll of women with cancer found. It can be colored, permed, cut and blow-dried just like normal but it must be re-styled after each shampoo, so most women using wigs have been left without a place to get their hair done. “I know I’m home with just my family but you get used to having your hair done,” says Natalie Filler, a 25-year breast cancer survivor.  Makes you feel normal, less depressed, she says. “It’s not just a wig. It’s hope.”

-Report contribution by Jack Cote, a high school junior studying journalism



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