Patients Losing Hair to Chemotherapy Treatment Need Wigs

By Janet Podolak
JPodolak@News-Herald.com

Stacey Prine of Mentor wears the wig she received on loan from Lake Health/University Hospitals Seidman Cancer Center. (Photo by Michael Allen Blair, News-Herald.com)

Stacey Prine has had a lot to deal with since late November, when she was diagnosed with pneumonia.

She recovered from that, but her doctor still didn’t like what he was hearing in her lungs, so he sent her for a CT scan. A month later, she had a biopsy and was diagnosed with lung cancer.

“I started chemotherapy treatments in January and am now in my fourth week of radiation treatments,” she said.

On some days she gets chemo and radiation, spending half days at Lake University Ireland Cancer Center in Mentor.

In the past few months she’s gotten to know nurse Terri McKenna quite well.

McKenna, an oncology nurse who administers Prine’s treatments, gets to know her patients at a very intense time in their lives. She also collects donated wigs to loan to patients when they lose their hair.

“Terri is just wonderful,” said Prine. “My experience in getting a wig was very traumatic. I’m the only blonde in my family, and now my hair is almost gone.”

McKenna loaned Prine three wigs to take home and try on. All had been washed and styled by students at Brown Aveda Institute, a cosmetology school just down the street.

Prine, who lives in Mentor’s Headlands neighborhood, now is wearing a wig that’s an almost perfect match to her natural color.

“We try to pair patients with the same nurse during their treatment,” said Mary Rode, clinical operations managers at Ireland Cancer Center. “Our nurses are excellent clinicians and can assess even the smallest changes.”

A cancer diagnosis can be very traumatic, Rode said, and the nurse is part of the team. “Patients in treatment lose a lot of control in their lives, and then they lose their hair, which for many of them is their identity.”

“Real hair wigs can cost $600 to $800,” McKenna said. “We have always been able to maintain our inventory from donations, but in the past six months donations have dwindled.”

Cancer patients who lose their hair should check to see if their insurance covers a wig, Rode said.

“We can always write a prescription for a cranial prosthesis, and some health plans do cover that,” she said.

Hair loss varies from patient to patient, depending on the type, dose and frequency of chemotherapy. Today’s chemotherapy drugs are much more varied than the drugs in another era, which almost always led to hair loss.

“Some patients are in here five times a week for months,” Rode said.

In her two decades as an oncology nurse, McKenna has seen patients refuse chemotherapy because it would mean loss of their hair.

“Hats are nice, but they aren’t a woman’s identity,” Rode observes. “We want to see our patients continue their social life, and a wig sometimes helps them see their cancer treatment as a bump in the road, not the end of things.”

Because chemotherapy targets fast-growing cancer cells in the body, it also attacks other fast growing cells, such as those in hair roots.

“Breast cancer patients on Adriamycin can mark their calendars,” McKenna said. “Their hair will fall out in 14 days.”

Hair loss, which usually begins one to three weeks after treatment begins, is not always confined just to the scalp. Men and women might also lose eyelashes, eyebrows, armpit and pubic hair and different doses can cause anything from thinning to baldness. Experts say hair loss is not usually noticeable until half of it is gone.

Some cancer patients, especially younger ones, are fine with using scarves and hats throughout their treatment, McKenna said.

“But teachers and young mothers with kids want things to seem as normal as possible for those around them,” she said. “We keep a list of places where people can buy one, but not everyone can afford a wig. It’s great to see the glow on a woman’s face when she finds out we can loan them one.”

Fortunately, most of the time hair loss from chemotherapy is temporary. Hair will regrow in three to 10 months after treatment ends, although it often comes back in with a different texture or color.

“It can take up to six months to have enough to look like a butch haircut,” McKenna said. “It usually comes in really soft, like puppy fur.”

McKenna said the women who are loaned wigs don’t have to return them, although many do.

“For some, there’s a certain stability afforded in keeping it,” she said. “It’s been 15 years now since my sister-in-law had cancer, and she’s just now giving away all the scarves she accumulated then. It’s OK if they want to keep their wig.”

McKenna said her supply of wigs has dwindled to 30, so she’s had to limit the program to patients at Lake University Ireland Cancer Center. In the past, a wig was available for loan to anyone with a cancer diagnosis.

“I would like to be able to open the program to all cancer patients again,” McKenna said.

Stacey Prine, who is scheduled for lung surgery next month, already knows she’ll return her wig when she’s done with it.

“It’s so overwhelming to see all the things they do for their cancer patients,” she said. “I want to see the program continue.”

Oncology nurse Terri McKenna is accepting donations of new and used wigs.
Details: 440-205-5762

They can be sent to her at:
Lake University Ireland Cancer Center, Suite 3
9485 Mentor Ave.
Mentor, OH 44060

Janet Podolak (2011)
The News-Herald, News-Herald.com

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