Wigs 101: Your Guide to Wigs During Cancer Treatment

Types, Care, Cost, and More

In This Article

Losing your hair due to chemotherapy can take a toll on your self-image and outlook during treatment. Wearing a wig can help you feel more like yourself until your hair grows in. But if a you've never bought one before, you may be wondering how to choose from among the many wig types, what they cost, and more.

Consider this your guide to the why and how when it comes to getting a wig during cancer treatment. While you may decide it's not the right decision for you, such a small thing can bring significant rewards.

Why a Wig?

Chemotherapy drugs are designed to attack cancer cells, which rapidly divide. The problem is that these drugs also affect other rapidly-dividing cells, such as hair follicles. The result, of course, is hair loss.

Some chemotherapy drugs are more likely than others to cause hair loss, but complete hair loss is usually the norm rather than the exception for people receiving adjuvant chemotherapy for early-stage breast cancer. The chemotherapy drugs used for metastatic breast cancer also commonly cause hair loss.

Though not serious in a medical sense, hair loss one of the more dreaded side effects of chemotherapy. Some undergoing treatment say that losing their hair makes them feel less like themselves. Others may feel self-conscious or unsettled by such a visible reminder of their disease. Still others may not feel a personal need for a wig, but get one because they feel it will help their loved ones in some regard.

Getting a wig can be a helpful solution for those with these and other feelings about their hair loss. Conquering the many effects of cancer is helped by confidence, and something as simple as a wig can go a long way in fostering that.

Radiation therapy to your head can also cause hair loss. It's important to note that hair loss related to radiation therapy—unlike that with chemotherapy—is often permanent. 

Types of Wigs

Depending on the amount of hair loss you have, you might not necessarily need a full wig. Different types of wigs and hairpieces are made for different types of hair loss, and they all hit different price points:

  • full wig covers the entire hairline just as natural hair does. If you've lost all of your hair during chemotherapy, then a full wig is probably what you want.
  • partial wig is woven into hair. If chemotherapy makes your hair thin and you just want to add a little more fullness, this is a great option.
  • wiglet can be added to your hair with clips or combs to easily conceal bald spots and add length to short hair.
  • hairpiece is the perfect solution if you don't want a full or partial wig. If you want a little fringe to tuck under a scarf or a summer hat, try this option. There are bangs, halo wigs, headband hair, ponytails, and braids.

Wig Bases

A wig base, also known as a wig cap, is the structure that fits against the head and has wefts (hair units) or strands attached to it; wig bases are used for full wigs.

The right wig base can make your wig look great and help you feel confident while wearing it. Only you will see the wig base, but it still affects how the wig looks, styles, fits, and holds up. There are several kinds of wig bases:

  • comfort cap is a complete, dense base. Strands of hair are hand-tied to the base, making for a natural part in the hair.
  • cap-less or wefted base consists of an open network of woven material connected to a closed front section. Wefts of hair are added to the fabric network.
  • lace wig has 1 to 2 inches of fine lace fabric around the outer edge of the cap. Strands of hair are machine-tied or hand-tied to the base to create a very natural appearance.
  • monofilament base is a closed cap of fine mesh material with machine-tied or hand-tied strands. The upper-front section of the cap is coated with a thin layer of latex, creating the appearance of a natural scalp.

Wig Hair Options

Wig hair comes in many different colors and can be cut and styled to suit your personal taste. If damage occurs, which is likely, the wig can be repaired at a professional wig salon.

There are two types of wig hair:

  • A wig made from synthetic hair has strands created from polymers, which can hold a style through wear and shampoo. There are many types of synthetic wig hair, and some can easily melt near heat sources. Some types of synthetic hair, such as Kanekalon, can be styled with heat tools.
  • A real human hair wig can be colored, permed, cut, styled, and blow-dried, just like your own hair. These must be restyled after each shampoo.

Wig Quality and Costs

Human hair wigs are the most expensive. High-quality human hair wigs from Europe top the price list, with hair from India and Asia a close second. Some real hair wigs are a mix of human and animal hair, which cuts the cost a little.

Synthetic hair wigs generally sell for lower prices than real hair, but a high-quality synthetic wig can cost just as much as a medium-quality human hair wig.

Wig hair is graded by strength, elasticity, and porosity. The better the hair quality, the greater your cost, and with care, the longer you will be able to wear the wig. Consider how long you might need to wear a wig before you decide what you want to spend on it.

A wig can cost from $40 to thousands of dollars. But when your budget is already strained by the cost of surgery and other cancer treatments, even something on the lower end of that spectrum may seem out of reach.

Affording Your Wig

Many insurance companies cover all or part of the cost of your first wig. In order to do this, they usually require that you have a written prescription from your oncologist for a "hair prosthesis."

Make sure you keep track of tax-deductible cancer expenses, including the cost of wigs, hats, and scarves.

Free and Discounted Wigs

There are several organizations that offer free and discounted wigs, as well as other head covers such as scarves and hats for those going through cancer treatment.

Here are some resources to check. Depending on your location, you may have local organizations that provide free wigs as well.

  • Your Cancer Center: Many large (and some smaller) cancer centers take donated wigs and make them available free of cost to those beginning breast cancer treatment. Call your cancer center and ask what options are available, or ask your oncology nurse.
  • American Cancer Society: The American Cancer Society (ACS) accepts donations of wigs, which they collect in wig banks at their local chapters. These wigs have been cleaned and kept ready for use. If you have no health insurance and are in need of help, contact your local ACS office and ask about patient services. Some of the wigs are distributed through ACS itself, while others are given out at local Look Good Feel Better meetings, along with cosmetics and head coverings.
  • CancerCare: As part of their Women's Cancer Program, CancerCare offers financial assistance and counseling, support groups, and patient education. They also provide free wigs and breast prostheses to women who have lost their hair or a breast as a result of their cancer treatment.
  • EBeauty Community: The organization EBeauty Community accepts donations of used wigs and provides them to women going through cancer treatment free of cost.
  • Lolly's Locks: This organization was formed with the concept that looking good can truly help you feel good. Lolly's Locks provides high-quality stylized wigs to those who could not otherwise afford them and is the only organization that provides customized wigs free of cost.
  • Susan G. Komen Foundation: Some local affiliates of Susan G. Komen provide free wigs. Call your local chapter to see if wigs are offered in your area.
  • Wigs and Wishes: This a network of salons that provide free wigs for women and children facing cancer all over the world. You can check the organization's website to find a participating salon near you. They also provide styling services in order to help women feel in control of their appearance during treatment.

Caring for Your Wig

Wigs and hairpieces, like your natural hair, require care and attention to look good. Plan on shampooing, conditioning, and drying your wig. Use the right products for wig maintenance. Stock up on wig shampoo, wig conditioner, and wig spray.

Never use heat tools on a synthetic wig, unless it is made of special heat-resistant polymers. Synthetic hair can melt or frizz and must be repaired if it's damaged.

Invest in a folding wig stand if you plan on traveling with a wig. You should use a wig brush, not a hairbrush, on a wig. Brush it gently to avoid pulling out hairs.

If you use barrettes or clips on a wig, remove them overnight so crimps don't permanently bend the hair.

The better you take care of your wig, the longer it will keep you looking good.

Having Options

Some people prefer to wear a scarf or a hat instead of a wig. Wigs can be irritating and itchy, and very hot in the summer. Even if you decide to wear a wig most of the time, it's still nice to have some hats and scarves on hand, especially when relaxing at home.

Paying It Forward

When your hair has grown back and you feel ready to show off your chemo curls, consider donating your wig to a cancer support organization, so someone else can enjoy it. If you have trouble finding a place that will take donated wigs, contact your local hospital and ask if they have a cancer clinic; they may be looking for donations of cancer care items.

You may also donate money to registered charities that supply wigs to women who are in treatment for cancer but cannot afford the price of a wig.

Donating Your Hair to Others With Cancer

While synthetic and real hair wigs can look terrific, the latter are typically preferred for many reasons. Many people find it difficult to cut their hair once it finally grows back, but doing so so that someone walking in your shoes can have this kind of a wig upgrade can be gratifying.

Depending on the agency, you may donate different lengths of hair, but most will accept only hair that has not been dyed or chemically treated in any way. Learn more about donating your hair to people with cancer, the requirements needed, and some of the organizations that perform this wonderful service so you can plan ahead, if interested.

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  • American Cancer Society. Choosing and Wearing a Wig. https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/physical-side-effects/hair-loss/choosing-and-wearing-wig.html