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News / Health / Breast Cancer

For breast cancer patients, it’s about hair – and identity

Kaiser boutique invites cancer patients to shop a wide variety of free hairstyles, hats and scarves

By Calley Hair, Columbian staff writer
Published: October 6, 2019, 5:22am
11 Photos
A selection of wigs are available for cancer patients to try on and take home for free at Kaiser Permanente Interstate Medical Office East.
A selection of wigs are available for cancer patients to try on and take home for free at Kaiser Permanente Interstate Medical Office East. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

For many patients undergoing chemotherapy, anything that helps them feel like themselves again can make all the difference.

And hair — while far from the top concern when trying to get healthy — is a significant part of many cancer patients’ identities.

A gift boutique at Kaiser Permanente’s Northwest Interstate Medical Office is working to help cancer patients reclaim some of that identity, providing a “shopping” experience where anyone struggling with hair loss can choose from a selection of wigs, hats and scarves, free of charge.

“It can be a really traumatic thing. It’s a really big deal; it’s a really physical, outward expression of what they’re going through,” said Rhonda Wirth, a nurse navigator at the hospital and founder of the wig closet.

Free wig Resources for cancer patients

Kaiser gift boutique. Central Interstate Kaiser Permanente Office Building, 3600 N. Interstate Ave., Portland

PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center. Wig and scarf program (PeaceHealth patients only): Infusion Center, 505 N.E. 87th Ave., Vancouver

Cascadia Tech Academy in partnership with Susan G. Komen Foundation. Wig, wig brush, head scarf and styling consultation: available by appointment. 360-604-1050 ext. 1080

American Cancer Society. Wigs and headwear for cancer patients: 1-800-227-2345 or 0330 S.W. Curry St., Portland

Clark County wig and styling specialists (by appointment):

Ambiance Salon and Wigs: 360-735-7227 or 601 N.W. 78th St., Vancouver

Change Salon and Wigs: 360-573-7534 or 318 N.E. 99th St., Vancouver

Hair Options: 360-576-7002 or 14313 N.E. 20th Ave., Vancouver

“There really were not resources for people to get wigs as a result of hair loss from chemo, and we were getting that question fairly often, ‘Where can I go?’ ”

In 2016, Wirth got the green light from her employer to move ahead with the boutique. She gathered a selection of wigs from the American Cancer Society, solicited donations of items from other nonprofits and faith groups, and set up a little store in a conference room near the hospital’s oncology department.

“It was a really grass roots sort of beginning. We had a little supply of wigs, and we managed to cook up a few other donations of items,” Wirth said.

At the time, the boutique operated four hours a day, once a week. It’s now open all day every Friday, and it’s the top supplier of free wigs for cancer patients in the Portland metro area. They’ll usually offer between 10 and 12 styles on any given day.

Visitors don’t need to be a Kaiser patient to access the closet. Any cancer patient can come in, from anywhere. Everyone gets one wig.

On a recent Friday, a variety of styles were on display — long brunette waves, a short gray bob, corkscrew copper curls. They’re all synthetic wigs, but they look fairly natural and if purchased would cost anywhere from $150 to a few hundred dollars.

Marie Vallens, a volunteer at the shop and student working toward her own medical degree, said the boutique tends to serve between 30 and 50 people in a day.

One of those visitors on Sept. 6 was Shelli Murdock, a Happy Valley, Ore., resident battling cancer. She meandered into the room to browse the selection of goods.

“It’s a non-treatment day, so it’s a good day,” Murdock said.

Removing barriers

It’s no secret that cancer treatment is expensive, and many people undergoing chemotherapy are often too sick to work. With such expensive necessities, non-necessities such as wigs can be shoved to the side — for cancer patients struggling to make ends meet, it’s hard to justify dropping a couple hundred dollars on hair.

“The hundred dollars may be the difference between buying this wig, or buying this prescription or putting groceries on the table,” Wirth said.

Resources like the wig boutique help remove barriers, allowing cancer patients to seek out little pieces of normalcy without needing to weigh the expense.

And the shopping experience can even be fun, Wirth said. When she founded the boutique, she didn’t want it to feel like a hospital. The room is decorated to look like a cozy store, with folding dividers, mannequins and colorful hat displays.

Some visitors choose wild hair hues or styles — after all, why not? — while other patients seek out a wig that helps them recognize their pretreatment selves in the mirror.

Brooke Carlson, a 45-year-old breast cancer patient from Troutdale, Ore., said that when she picked out a wig in May, she went with something similar to her original hair: sleek, medium-length, dark blonde. It resembled her natural hair, with one exception.

“I have to straighten my normal hair to get it to do that,” Carlson said.

Columbian staff writer