For Black women, a special chemo challenge: finding a wig that works
Like a lot of women diagnosed with breast cancer, I made a mental tally before starting treatment of the possible losses that I was suddenly facing: my breasts, my fertility, and my hair.
That was 10 years ago. I had just turned 30. I was told then that my hair loss would be easiest to cover up during treatment with the help of wigs and extensions. But for many Black women like me, the options were not plentiful then and, unfortunately, a decade later, little has changed.
Typically, few wigs — especially ones covered health by insurance — are designed with Black hair textures in mind. And because of that, Black women often find themselves facing a challenge when it comes to feeling close to their authentic selves during treatment and recovery.
Now, though, amid a greater emphasis on Black women’s health as part of the broader national reckoning on race, Black women are speaking out about this distinctive aspect of their cancer experiences, and wig makers say people are beginning to listen.
I spoke with four Black women about their experiences and the need for more inclusive products to help survivors with hair struggles during their treatment.
Marissa Thomas on representing Black hair in the cancer center
Marissa Thomas, 41, lives in Seattle, Washington, and is the co-founder and chief executive officer for For the Breast of Us. Marissa was diagnosed in 2015 at age 35. One of her first stops after diagnosis was a store at her cancer center where you could look at wigs.
But the wigs she found at the hospital did not match a Black woman’s hair color or hair texture. “None of the wigs there were for us at all,” Marissa said.
I believe this is something that they do need to focus on. Cancer treatment and the side effects that come with it, such as losing your hair, is a big mental toll for anybody.
“When you lose your hair and you want to have a wig, you want something that looks similar to what you've had before. And going into places and not being able to find that is just hard,” Marissa said. “I had a baby shower to attend, and I didn't feel comfortable since I had lost all of my hair. I thought, ‘Oh, I need a wig to wear.’ I ended up not wearing a wig because I couldn't find one. So I just said, ‘Forget it.’”
Marissa went searching in her local beauty supply stores. Eventually, she paid $500 to have a wig done by a local woman she found online who made them out of her home.
Through her organization, Marissa advises many Black women who are searching for wig options. She says to contact your health insurance to see how much they will cover, search online for community groups like For the Breast of Us to connect with other survivors and resources, and look for providers and companies that provide wigs for Black women.
“When it comes to cancer centers and medical providers, they're so much focused on trying to, quote-unquote, ‘save your life’ that they're not worried about the physical appearance,” Marissa said. “I believe this is something that they do need to focus on. Cancer treatment and the side effects that come with it, such as losing your hair, is a big mental toll for anybody.”
Even providers who express care about the physical effects of breast cancer treatment often make it sound like you should just be happy with the wigs they have, like losing your hair is simply the price you pay for saving your life.
“No. Give us a range of options for what we should have. It shouldn't be primarily focused on white women or the people who are donating wigs. Make sure that you're donating something for all ranges of women and not just Caucasian women.”
Dianne Austin on starting a Black wig line for people with cancer
Dianne Austin, CEO and co-founder of Coils to Locs, got the idea to start her own wig line after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015.
“The journey started with me trying to find a wig that looked like my tightly coiled curly kinky hair and using my health insurance to get reimbursed for that wig at different cancer center boutiques,” said Dianne. “I wasn't able to find a wig that looked like my hair because these cancer center boutiques only carry straight hair wigs for patients to consider. And that was just really frustrating for me. I wanted to look as normal as possible.”
Dianne started researching right away, during her chemo. She and her sister, Pamela Shaddock, called boutiques at the top cancer hospitals in the country. They asked if they carried wigs for Black women that would resemble her natural kinky coils. Sometimes they referred her to other salons or retailers, but no one had these wigs.
… these cancer center boutiques only carry straight hair wigs. And that was really frustrating. I wanted to look as normal as possible.
So what did she do? Pamela flew in from Los Angeles and they went to beauty supply stores in communities of color, which, Dianne said, “was my only choice.”
Her health insurance covered the cost of the wig for up to $350, through a reimbursement process that required a formal invoice. But because she couldn’t buy the wig at a cancer center that would supply one, it created problems down the road.
“This is a part of a healthcare disparity.” Dianne said. “When you decide to go with a cancer center boutique and you get a wig, you're brought into a private room, you're meeting with a licensed cosmetologist. You can try on different wigs in privacy. No one has to see that you've lost your hair or you're losing your hair. And they understand the process of reimbursement.”
Contrast that with the beauty supply store. There are no private rooms to try on wigs. “So when I asked ‘where can I try this wig on?’ my only choice was to try it on right there in the middle of the store floor,” Dianne said. One or two offered a bathroom or supply room. “And they all said, ‘Well, you can buy it. But if you don't like it or it doesn't fit, you can't bring it back. It's not refundable.’ The experience of women of color or, really, anyone who has this highly textured hair, who prefers these wigs, is less than optimal because you have to go a different route.”
In the end, Dianne purchased a wig and the beauty supply store only gave her a register receipt, despite her request for a formal invoice. Her health insurance wouldn’t accept it, so she was never able to use her reimbursement benefit.
Dianne built out her business, and her wig line is now in hospitals in her hometown of Boston, as well as in the states of Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Texas, and Washington. Coils to Locs is the first mass distributor of coiled wigs in cancer centers and medical salons. Her hope is that every woman who wants a medical wig that looks like their natural hair can have one. She wants her wigs to be in every cancer center boutique in the country. She knows the need is great — 1 in 3 Black women will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society, “and a large part of that population is wearing their hair now,” Dianne said.
“The racial reckoning that we've been experiencing in terms of peeling back the layers of bringing light to systemic racism and other issues in this country that started, unfortunately, due to George Floyd’s death, have brought a higher level of awareness,” she added. “Now people are more receptive. We don’t get a lot of resistance when we reach out to hospitals.”
Niasha Fray on calling on a community of support to find a wig
Niasha Fray had just finished working as a counselor on a research study of women who had finished primary breast cancer treatment and who were deciding whether to start anti-estrogen therapy. It was then that she herself was diagnosed with breast cancer, in 2017 at age 39. Now she’s a program director at the Duke Office of Durham and Community Affairs, in the research and advancement unit. At the time of her diagnosis, Niasha had natural hair and had never worn a wig before. So once she found out she had breast cancer, she went to a beauty supply store with a friend who wore wigs. The friend “normalized wearing a wig for me,” she said.
Having that friend was key to Niasha feeling comfortable with both the wig and the wig search. “Find someone that you know, you love, and will help and care for you and just hold your hand through the process,” she advised. Also, look to your healthcare provider to see what they have available, especially if they offer free wigs, in case you need to save some money. “This journey is expensive, and it's ongoing,” Niasha said.
She researched local hair shops and wig providers and sought out Black women who are wigmakers. It’s also possible to make your own wig with help of YouTube videos; just search “make your own wig.” (Here’s one example.)
Find someone that you know, you love, and will help and care for you and just hold your hand through the process.
Niasha added that not everybody chooses to wear a wig. “And I respect that, too,” she said. “That's something else that could be talked about in terms of women embracing their bald head. And how that is also very Black and African.”
Monisha Parker on making your wig look right for you
Losing her hair was the first thing Monisha Parker thought about when she started chemo. Monisha, who is an ambassador for For the Breast of Us and lives in North Carolina, was diagnosed in 2014 at age 28. Her grandmother and mother are both breast cancer survivors, too.
“I had never worn a wig prior to my diagnosis,” she said. Monisha learned there were little areas set up in the cancer center with wigs available, but she soon discovered they were not really for Black women. Most styles were thin and dated. “The whole point of me getting a wig was to feel more comfortable, but they made me feel worse because they didn't look right,” Monisha said. “I had to do some searching online and go to a lot of my local beauty supply stores before I finally found a wig that looked more natural.”
She found wigs online, too. In the end, Monisha spent thousands of dollars. She purchased many wigs online, and she would order one after another when they would fail her.
“It was stressful at first because I was so pressed to find a wig. But after a while, I was able to experiment and have fun with it,” Monisha said. “Try a bunch of different things. I learned if you find a wig, if you want to buy a cheaper wig, you can always tweeze the part to make it look natural by using concealer on the part.”
It took me a while to find my wig. I shed some tears, but I finally found one that worked, thanks to a friend who was a young breast cancer survivor. She helped me find a medical hair store that specializes in helping cancer patients; it was about an hour from where I lived at the time. I had such an amazing experience that a year later I ended up traveling back there to help two other Black women who were diagnosed with breast cancer find their wigs.
It takes a village, as they say, but we found our wigs.
Victoria St. Martin is a journalist and educator based in Philadelphia. She was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 30 and recently marked a decade of survivorship.
Places to find your temporary crownIn search of a wig? If you or someone you love is a Black survivor, here are some resources:
Coils to Locs, which was started by Dianne Austin and her sister, Pamela Shaddock, after Dianne’s diagnosis in 2015. The company works with hospitals and hair loss centers in Massachusetts, Georgia, Kansas, Illinois, Texas, and Washington. To have them reach out to your cancer center retail store, email them directly or share their information with your center.
Shades of Melanin Hair is an online-based business owned by Katrina Scott of Texas. Ms. Scott, who started the company in 2019, has a family member who had breast cancer and wanted to make sure she could provide options for Black women dealing with hair loss.
This article on Essence.com featured websites with more curly and kinky options for Black women, including the businesses My First Wig, Her Given Hair, Knappy Hair Premium Hair Extensions and Natural Girl Wigs.
Thank you to our sponsors: