Helping Cancer Patients Cope with Hair Loss

Stephanie Schutz with a client in the Wig Salon.Madison, Wisconsin – For women diagnosed with cancer, the hair loss attendant to chemotherapy treatments must be the least of their concerns, right? There is so much else – the struggle to get healthy, the physical discomfort imposed by the treatment, the reorganization of a life made necessary by the diagnosis – to worry about.


Not necessarily.


Concerns of health and home are real and must be confronted, but the alopecia – hair loss – that accompanies chemotherapy for nearly 70 percent of cancer patients can make women feel stigmatized by their disease and result in dramatic drops in self-esteem.


In his published study, "Chemotherapy-induced Hair Loss," Dr. R.M. Trueb discovered, "Chemotherapy-induced hair loss is considered to be one of the most traumatic factors in cancer patient care. Forty-seven percent of female patients consider hair loss to be the most traumatic aspect of chemotherapy and 8 percent would decline chemotherapy due to fears of hair loss."


Further studies have shown self-esteem is significantly higher prior to cancer diagnosis than after chemotherapy for women who have lost hair during treatment, and remains lower even after their hair has returned.


Its a problem within a larger problem, and one Friends of UW Hospital and Clinics and the UW Carbone Cancer Center helps counter by offering wigs and scarves through its Wigs for Patients program to patients who have experienced hair loss because of treatment. The program's annual operating costs are provided by Friends of UW Hospital and Clinics, Susan G. Komen Foundation grants and private donations.


Stephanie Schutz manages the Wig Salon's staff of volunteers, all of whom are trained in wig fitting and styling. They see more than 400 patients each year, mostly women (but some men) and ranging in age from 18 to 90. All patients receive one free wig.


"We offer wigs and hats and scarves to anyone in the UW Health system, for hair loss for any reason," she says. "We provide consultation and wig fitting and cutting, if needed. And when their hair grows back I encourage them to come back in for a quick appointment, so I can shape their hair so they're comfortable with it."


Stephanie accepts walk-ins but encourages appointments at the Wig Salon, located within the Carbone Cancer Center clinics, and also meets patients in other areas of UW Hospital, if its convenient. Business is booming, she says, in part because the hospitals clinical staff so readily promotes the service.


"I feel like we work as a team," Stephanie says. "We may be a small part of the team and a small part of the process, but it really gets patients going in the right direction."


A licensed cosmetologist for 25 years, Stephanie strives to provide a service every bit as professional as customers experience at their local salons.


"Whatever the trend is, whatever color is the popular color of the season, we have it," she says. "Whatever is happening in the salon is happening in the Wig Salon. We can accommodate almost anything."


Stephanie engages her "clients," as she prefers to call them, and tries to match product to person.


"You get a feel for their personalities and can figure out what's going to work for them," she says, but she always abides by the patients wishes. "We let the client decide, because theres going to be one style that makes them really feel good."


And for chemotherapy patients, feeling good translates to a positive approach to their care.


"If they feel good, everybody wins," Stephanie says. "They mentally go through treatment with a better frame of mind. If they're up and moving and feeling great about life, the cancer treatment isnt nearly as difficult."