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.
“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.
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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.
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.