Selfless snip: Donated hair offers freedom, confidence to people dealing with hair loss

In early December, after one round of intensive chemotherapy for cancer, Christine Adley started to lose her hair. And it came out bad, she said.

When the 23-year-old Chicagoan went to the American Cancer Society wig bank at the University of Illinois-Chicago hospital, she thought she would be getting another synthetic wig, like the two she already had, one black, one purple. But she was surprised when she was offered a different option: wigs made out of real human hair.

After trying on about six wigs, she chose a brown, just-above-the-shoulders wig, which she said she picked because it was made from real hair, and because it was a departure from her usual look of long, black hair—“I stepped on the wild side,” she said.

“When I tried it on, I was like, 'I could do this,' and after about 10 minutes of having it on, I didn’t want to take it off,” she said. “I was addicted to it.”

From ponytail to wig

If you’re a long-haired person, chances are that the time will come when you want to cut off all those inches, for a new-job cut, a breakup cut or just a plain old I-want-a-makeover cut. What’s going to happen to that hair? It could end up on the floor, then in the trash. Or, if you send it to a program that turns donated hair into wigs, it could get a new life with someone who, because of cancer, burns, the autoimmune disease alopecia or another cause, doesn’t have hair of their own.

Every hair donation organization operates a little differently, but the general process is the same. Donors send in ponytailed hair that meets specific requirements—usually at least 8, 10 or 12 inches long, and not dyed, processed or overly gray. It takes several ponytails, likely from multiple donors, to make a single wig.

From there, the hair may go to a wig bank to be a choice for a woman with cancer, or to a child with hair loss who has picked his or her cut, color and style and had a wig custom-made.

Real-hair wigs can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars, but many of these programs give them for free or inexpensively.

And if you’ve heard rumors about hair being thrown out or sold, don’t worry; generally, only hair that is moldy or damaged is thrown out, and money made by selling hair that is too short, gray or otherwise unusable goes toward wig production costs.

Whether a person should get a real-hair or synthetic wig all comes down to personal preference. Synthetic wigs are available in a wide variety of cuts and colors, and they can be bought inexpensively. They don’t need to be washed as often as real-hair wigs, and once styled, they don’t need to be styled again.

But real-hair wigs act like real hair. They can be washed and styled with any products. You can curl, flat-iron or blow-dry and sometimes even dye, highlight or perm them.

They also typically last longer, and they can be more breathable and less itchy or hot.

Providing some normalcy, control

Regardless of what they’re made of, wigs offer a multitude of psychological and emotional benefits for people with hair loss.

Not every person with hair loss wants a wig. Some choose to wear hats or scarves, or simply go out bald, as Adley said she does sometimes. But multiple people who work with cancer patients said one of the most important things is that wigs offer patients a choice at a time when a lot of choices are taken from them.

“They don’t have a choice about that this happened in their body, they don’t have a choice of the treatments they have to undergo, how their body’s going to respond,” Heidi Thomalla, a child life specialist at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, said of the child and adolescent cancer patients she works with. “So much is taken away, so being offered the option to ... kind of be able to take something back, to have control over if I’m going to lose my hair, this gives me at least feelings of, I can take some control back and have a choice in this, which I think is huge. And that’s pretty powerful for all ages.”

Wigs can also provide people a sense of normalcy.

“I don’t think people really understand how traumatic losing your hair is and how traumatic not having hair is," Adley said. "When I started losing my hair, I was able to pull it out, and when your hair comes out like that, it’s basically a constant reminder that you are sick, you have cancer, and it’s a reminder of your battle.”

Wigs can make people with hair loss feel normal, like they're not sick, she said.

“I can walk out in the street with this wig on and no one can look at me like, ‘She has cancer,’ ” she said.

Kristin Smith, who is the patient navigator for fertility preservation at Prentice Women’s Hospital and works with young women with new cancer diagnoses, said that especially for a young adult, “losing hair because of a cancer diagnosis is kind of like putting salt in a wound. They’ve already had a life-altering diagnosis, now they’re undergoing treatment that’s interrupting their work schedule, their social calendar, their love life, and to be able to provide them a real-hair wig that’s free can sometimes be sort of one thing that helps them feel just a little bit more like themselves, or a little bit more normal.”

Thomalla said wigs can let young adults and adolescents feel like they fit in with their peers. For a teen with prom or homecoming coming up, for example, a wig allows the chance to get her hair styled, have an updo and feel just like every other girl at the dance, she said.

Hair and identity

Jane Marienau, who helps women choose synthetic or real wigs at the American Cancer Society wig bank at Prentice Women’s Hospital, said that hair loss can also cause a loss of sense of self. She said she often meets women who have had the exact same hairstyle for their whole life and aren't even used to having a different haircut, let alone full hair loss.

“When women or men go through treatment that causes hair loss and changes in skin tone, they lose that sense of being able to see their image as it was before, and so that creates, again, anxiety and stress,” she said.

Marienau recalled one woman who had had dark, curly hair. There were no wigs like that at the bank, but Marienau looked around and eventually was able to order one. By the time the woman came in to get the wig, she was feeling weak enough that she came in a wheelchair, but when they put the wig on her and turned her around and she looked in the mirror be...

“I’m back,” the woman said.

And, in the midst of treatment, wigs can even offer an opportunity to have some fun. People can try a totally new hairstyle or hair color and express themselves in different ways.

Throughout her treatment for grey zone lymphoma a few years ago, Chicagoan Jenna Benn Shersher, now 34, wore a variety of wigs, from a human-hair wig from Russia that looked like her own long, black hair to several cheaper synthetic ones she bought at a shop around the corner from her home.

“I sort of saw this as an opportunity to try on different personalities and identities and see which ones fit, and there was something really empowering about waking up the next day and not knowing which version of myself I wanted to be,” she said.

When Adley went to pick out her wig, she brought her mom and her sister with her. She said the process was made fun and as low-stress as possible, and they were laughing during it; she called it a great bonding time.

Cycle of support

A heartwarming aspect of hair donation is that there seems to be a cycle surrounding it; you find people who have experienced it from every angle.

Chicago hairstylist William Reinke recently cut the hair of a young woman who had just been diagnosed with cancer and wanted to donate 13 inches of her hair before she started losing it.

Smith, of Prentice Women's Hospital, plans to donate her own hair for the fourth time later this year. She was among the Prentice staffers who donated their hair a few years ago in an event called “Making the Cut,” and Benn Shersher, who was one of her patients, made the first cut to her hair.

When Benn Shersher’s hair started falling out after her first round of chemo, she decided to donate the rest of it. Today, she's growing her hair out to donate again, so she can cut and donate it on her own terms—not because of a diagnosis.

“There’s something to be said for getting up every day, putting on makeup and presenting yourself to the world, so for me to be able to donate my hair in order to make someone else more comfortable and perhaps more empowered, I think, is a great way of being able to give back.”

Simple sacrifice, big difference

Hair donation might seem intimidating, but it’s easy to do, as simple as just not cutting your hair for long stretches.

Jane Lee, 31, of Bridgeport, had donated her hair in the past, but before she donated almost 13 inches in late 2015, she wasn’t even planning to grow her hair long—she just kept forgetting to get a haircut. People started to ask if she was going to donate it, and so she thought, why not? She kept waiting until it seemed like she could donate and still have shoulder-length hair.

She said she felt great to be able to do something with her hair instead of wasting it.

“... In the past when I’ve got a haircut, I just would look at the hair and be like, ‘Oooh, that hair could have been for something else,' " Lee said.

She said she hopes she can donate her hair again in the future.

Reinke, co-owner of Restoration Salon in East Lakeview and owner of onlywilliamdoesmyhair.com, has been doing donation cuts for Wigs for Kids for a little over five years, and he said that almost every time a customer comes in wanting a big change, he’ll get out a ruler and measure, and “generally, if it’s a matter of one to two inches, I will be able to talk them into donating.”

He’ll even do partial donations; if a person wants an angled style that won’t give a donatable 12 inches in the front, for example, he could still try to get ponytails from the back.

Kate Jotzat, owner of Chroma K8 Beautique in Lincoln Square, said that in the 18 months or so she’s been doing cuts for Wigs for Kids, she's been shocked to find that people aren’t as freaked out to cut so much hair as she expected them to be. She typically starts by cutting one ponytail then showing the client the length, easing them into it. But usually when people come to donate they’re ready, she said.

She said she would want potential donors to know “that it’s just hair, it’s gonna grow back, and the impact you have to help a little child who has really lost their self-esteem and maybe even possibly their self-worth is worth you giving up your hair.”

Not everyone has the financial resources to make big contributions to organizations researching diseases that cause hair loss, or the medical training to help patients personally. But don’t underestimate the power of a haircut, of giving your hair to help someone feel more confident and in control.

“Hair donation is a selfless act,” Benn Shersher said. “It’s not about your own appearance, it’s about being able to give what you have to someone else that’s in need.”

Margaux Henquinet is a RedEye copy editor. She has donated her hair three times, including the 12-inch donation for Wigs for Kids shown in the photos above, and looks forward to donating again as soon as she can.

@gauxmargaux  |  mhenquinet@redeyechicago.com

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