Free wig program provides a sense of comfort and joy to cancer patients

November 6, 2014 at 8:52 am 1 comment

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Wig Salon volunteers Linda Breniser, Louise Barto and Wendy Heffelfinger

When Patricia Greene learned she would need a stem cell transplant and probably lose her hair, she remembered signs she had seen around the Penn State Hershey Cancer Institute about a wig program where patients could get fitted for a free wig.

The Palmyra woman stopped by the Wig Salon — located inside the first floor infusion room– to chat with volunteer and breast cancer survivor Linda Breniser. Together, they tried different colors and styles until they found one suitable for Greene.

“I wanted to be prepared for when I lost my hair, but I wouldn’t have had time to go and find the best hair salon in Peachtree city GA and look for a wig,” Greene said. “It is such an awesome program. To lose your hair is really hard on a woman and they were so considerate and kind and patient… it made me feel so much better.”

Earlier this week, representatives from the American Cancer Society came to Penn State Hershey Cancer Institute to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the Wig Salon’s opening, and the fact that Salon volunteers have fitted 228 women with free wigs since then – more than any other Wig Salon in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

“To have access to a free wig when you are going through financial hardship is a big deal,” said Kelly Edwards, American Cancer Society account representative for Penn State Hershey. “Although some insurance companies will pay some of the cost of a wig – if the provider writes a script for a cranial prosthetic – most will not.”

Wigs often go for anywhere from $100 to $600, prices that are out of reach for many going through cancer treatment. Although some of the wigs in stock in the Salon are donated, others are purchased by the American Cancer Society.

Three volunteers – all cancer survivors – staff the Wig Salon from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, providing patients with a friendly and familiar space to stop in for a chat.

Mannequin heads topped with wigs and head coverings are displayed in one corner of a counter next to a large mirror and a basket of knitted hats. Wall decals remind patients to live well, laugh often and love much.

Volunteer Wendy Heffelfinger said infusion room nurses have been talking up the program, and the patients love it.

“You can hear it when you come in here, the way the nurses and patients greet each other. For what is going on here, it’s such a positive place.”

Connie Blauch, nurse coordinator in the Cancer Institute, said the Wig Salon gave away only eight wigs during its first month of operation.

“To get to these numbers is a testament to what has been done by the American Cancer Society and the volunteers,” she said.

Volunteer Louise Barto encourages patients to have fun with the opportunity to change their hair color or style.

“I tell them to have fun with it and try on different ones to see how they look,” she said. “It’s a chance to be a blonde or a red head, but it’s not forever because their own hair is going to come back.”

Joseph Drabick, M.D., medical oncologist and interim division chief for hematology/oncology at Penn State Hershey, said the Wig Salon is a bright light on a dark journey for many.

“Treatment for cancer is like a marathon ,”he said. “You can lose who you are and every little bit of laughter and fun helps to make a bad thing into a good thing.”

Those who may be looking for a wig can visit the private Wig Salon where a trained volunteer provides personal assistance in wig selection, fitting, styling and wearing at no charge. Call 1-800-227-2345 for more information.

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