Wigs for Women offers cancer patients a way to receive affordable wigs

“A cancer diagnosis is devastating. You can’t think straight. You live in the ‘now.’ You’re at your most vulnerable.” Robin Ott, of St. Cloud, shared some of the feelings of emotional turmoil she experienced after being diagnosed with cancer and during her treatment a few years ago. Coping day-to-day was a challenge, she said. Ott recently celebrated her five-year anniversary of being cancer free.  “A lot of people don’t realize the stress you go through just to get healthy again.”

Ott did not experience hair loss during her cancer treatment, but when she learned that some insurance companies don’t cover the cost of a wig for patients who lose their hair, she was baffled.

Robin Ott and Suzy Vaught at a recent benefit. Ott shaved her head in support of others who have lost their hair during cancer treatments. Contributed photo

Robin Ott and Suzy Vaught at a recent benefit. Ott shaved her head in support of others who have lost their hair during cancer treatments. Contributed photo

“Hair is part of your identity,” said Ott. “When you’re going through one of the hardest times of your life, dealing with cancer, you shouldn’t have the additional stress of not being able to afford a wig.”

She went on a mission, and founded Wigs for Women (WFW), a nonprofit organization committed to enhancing the dignity, self-esteem and well-being of those experiencing hair loss due to cancer. The purpose of the five-year-old organization is to increase awareness of hair loss issues related to cancer treatment and related costs that may not be covered by insurance. Ott, with the help of a small group of other cancer survivors and their friends, organized WFW’s first benefit in 2012, to raise money to help individuals get a wig.

Since then, annual fundraisers have been held each February, and the funds raised have been donated to the Enhancement Program at the St. Cloud Hospital Breast Center, located at CentraCare Health Plaza. That program was set up to help individuals get fitted for wigs and accessories, like hats and scarves.  Two beauticians volunteer at the program, which is offered at no cost to patients of the CentraCare Health System.

Sue Maxwell, of St. Cloud, heard about the “wig lady” when she was hospitalized after her cancer diagnosis in 2013. “I was kind of in shock when this happened,” she said, “because I hadn’t been sick, and then, just like that, I was told I had cancer.” The “wig lady,” from the Enhancement Program, helped Maxwell choose her wig, and not long after her first chemotherapy treatment, she began losing her hair.

“I only wore my wig to work,” said Maxwell. “I wore a hat if I was going to an event or shopping, and when I was home, I didn’t wear anything.” She laughed when recalling that, on more than one occasion, she forgot her wig entirely. “I would get into my car, ready to go to work, look in the mirror and realize I forgot my wig!”

Maxwell describes herself as an optimist.

“I knew my hair would grow back and that this was just a bump in the road,” she explained. “But, after having cancer, I do have a different perspective on a lot of things.” It surprised her that so many people didn’t know how to act around her. “They didn’t know if they should talk to me about my cancer or ask how I was feeling. There was a lot of discomfort.”

Maxwell has been on the board of WFW and strongly believes in its mission and goals. “If I had not had my wig during treatment, I would have needed a lot of other options.”

There are a variety of wigs to choose from through Wigs for Women and always someone to help them find the perfect wig. Contributed photo

There are a variety of wigs to choose from through Wigs for Women and always someone to help them find the perfect wig. Contributed photo

The WFW board is continually exploring new ways to serve the community and that’s how they came up with their new program. They recently introduced the WFW Wig Voucher Network for women, 18 and older, who will experience hair loss due to cancer treatment, and who cannot afford the cost of a wig.  Ott and Ronnette Trulson, a WFW board member,  explained that they want to serve individuals unable to use the Enhancement Program because they are not CentraCare cancer patients. In addition, some people may have difficulty traveling to, or be uncomfortable going to, the CentraCare Plaza.

With the Wig Voucher Network, individuals can apply for a voucher for up to $400 to purchase a wig through Pyramid Beauty Hair and Wigs, a WFW partner in this effort. Information on the voucher program and applications are being sent to beauty salons all over Central Minnesota, because hair stylists may be among the first to know about an individual’s cancer diagnosis and hair loss worries.

“Your hair stylist knows about the births of your children, your vacations and holiday plans,” said Ott. “They know you inside and out, everything about you. So, after a cancer diagnosis and learning that treatment will involve the loss of their hair, a person is feeling vulnerable and overwhelmed.” It can be a great comfort to turn to their hair stylist at this time for help in making a plan to deal with hair loss and for emotional support. “You are in your most vulnerable state, feeling powerless and unattractive, but you trust your stylist to help you get through it. They can make a plan for trimming your hair, and they can answer questions about getting a wig.”

The first WFW benefit attracted 75-100 people, and, at last year’s event, in 2016, over 200 attended. They outgrew their space at the Red Carpet lounge after a couple of years and moved the benefit to Glenn Carlson Hall at River’s Edge Convention Center in downtown St. Cloud. “The first year we rented half of the Glenn Carlson room, but last year we needed the whole room,” Ott said.  She and other board members are thrilled at how much the benefit has grown.

The family-friendly evening is filled to the brim with food, entertainment, live music and lots of laughter. Gift baskets are raffled off, and there’s a photo booth where people dress up, using props and wigs, and have their photo taken. “The free photo booth is the most popular attraction,” said Trulson. The Invincible Costume and Theatrical Company donates a few theatrical wigs for the benefit each year, and WFW has a collection of its own.

The fifth annual WFW Benefit will be held Feb. 18 at River’s Edge Convention Center in St. Cloud from 6-10 p.m. Advance tickets are available through the website or Value Connection for $20, or they can be purchased at the door for $25. Children under 12 are free. This year, a portion of the funds raised will go toward the new Wig Voucher Network program. More information on WFW and the 2017 benefit can be found on their website, www.wigsforwomenwithcancer.com.