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Wigs and Breast Cancer

Written by Barbara Boughton
Posted on December 6, 2021

Hair loss is a common side effect of treatment for breast cancer. While some people are fine showing their hair loss, others may opt to wear hats, headscarves, turbans, or wigs.

According to the American Cancer Society, people undergoing chemotherapy start to lose hair two to three weeks after their first treatment, and hair usually grows back about six months after completing treatment. Some types of chemotherapy don’t cause hair loss at all.

Choosing and wearing a wig that’s stylish and comfortable requires an investment of both time and money. Buying the right wig is not necessarily a simple task. It requires preparation and consideration to find one that has the right fit, hair color, comfort level, and price.

MyBCTeam Members Discuss Wearing Wigs

Most MyBCTeam members have tried at least one wig, with varying results:

  • “I ended up buying four wigs. It made me feel good when I had to go out of the house because I felt more like myself.”
  • “I already had several wigs, but they were inexpensive and uncomfortable. Finally I bought one that is comfortable and stylish. It’s something I can wear all day!”
  • “My husband and I went to a gala to raise funds for a children’s hospital. My sister, who is a hairstylist, came over to transform me. I have never looked so good!”
  • “I can’t get used to these wigs! My hot flashes are so bad that even when I just put on a wig to style it, I start sweating like crazy.”

Preparing for a Wig

If you think you might wear a wig, it’s wise to prepare to get one before you start treatment. Here are some steps to take.

Choose a Desired Look

Take a few photos of yourself in your current hairstyle, or find some pictures that show your preferred cut, style, and color.

Transition to Shorter Hair

Before you begin chemotherapy, cut your hair short. It will be emotionally easier to lose small clumps of hair rather than large ones. Plus, it’s easier to fit a wig over short hair, if you start wearing one while you begin losing hair.

Get the Right Fit

Measure your head before you start to lose your hair with your hair slicked down or wet. Make sure the wig you buy is adjustable; your head size may decrease by up to one size as you lose your hair.

Shop Early

Some people like to pick out a wig before undergoing chemotherapy, since they’ll have less energy after treatment starts. If you buy a wig in advance, it will be ready to wear when you want to begin wearing it.

MyBCTeam members said planning ahead and purchasing a wig before they started losing their hair had distinct benefits, both emotionally and practically. “My hairdresser went with me before I had my mastectomy to help me pick out a wig and trimmed the bangs for me,” said one member.

Another commented, “I bought four wigs before I went bald, so I didn’t shed a tear when all my hair fell out.”

Types of Wigs

Wigs can be made of human hair or synthetic hair, and some are a combination of both. The cost of a wig can vary widely. Human hair wigs tend to be more expensive ($800 to $3,000 or more), while synthetic wigs are cheaper, running between $30 and $500. If you’re not particular about quality and just want something fun to change your look, you can even find wigs for as little as $6 from the drugstore, according to MyBCTeam members.

Synthetic and human hair wigs also have different maintenance needs. Synthetic wigs are easier to maintain, and they can hold their styles — even in warm weather. They also fade less than wigs made of human hair. A wig made of human hair may need to be restyled or redyed as it ages.

The most realistic, natural-looking wigs use a lace front and a monofilament cap, or wig base. A monofilament cap conforms to the shape of the head. A lace front creates a more natural-looking hairline, but it is more delicate — and more expensive — than other options.

Monofilament caps mimic the look of natural hair growth. They let you part your hair wherever you like, but they are also the warmest type of cap. Wigs with a basic cap are the most affordable — and the coolest. They are made by sewing curtains of hair, called wefts, onto the cap. Air can flow directly to your scalp between the wefts.

Consider your unique preferences to pick between all the different types of wigs — synthetic, human hair, lace front, monofilament, and more. Think about the time you want to spend on care and styling as well. “I’ve found synthetic wigs better than real hair. They wash easily, and then I just hang them up to dry. Once they’re dry, they go back to their original shape,” one member said.

Other members wear partial hairpieces when they need something cooler in hot weather or when working out. “I use a baseball cap with hair that you can put into a ponytail. It’s good for the gym or when I don’t want to wear my wig,” said one member.

Wig Shopping

You can buy a wig at a wig shop, online, or through a charity program. The American Cancer Society and other nonprofit organizations offer low-cost or free wigs to cancer patients. Before choosing a wig, always measure your head with a cloth tape measure to determine your cap size.

You may want to buy more than one wig, with one a shade lighter than your current hair. That’s because during treatment, your skin may appear slightly yellow, gray, or green, and wigs with less contrast will look more natural. As well as the fit of a wig, you’ll want to consider whether a wig suits the shape of your face.

Oval Faces

If you have a longer face with a forehead that’s a little wider than your chin (an oval-shaped face), you can likely wear any style of wig. Try on a few to see which cuts you like best.

Heart Faces

Heart-shaped faces, which are characterized by wider foreheads and temples, high cheekbones, and pointed chins, can accommodate many styles of wigs. Short hairstyles or cuts with long, side-sweeping bangs might be good choices.

Round Faces

Round face shapes (with few angular sections and large cheeks) often look good with wavy, layered wigs that have lots of volume.

Square Faces

If you have a wider chin and forehead or an angular jawline, you may want to avoid chin-length wigs. A long wig with bangs is a solid choice.

Diamond Faces

Short and long bobs look especially good on people with diamond-shaped faces, which have a narrow forehead, small chin, and wide cheekbones.

Oblong Faces

People with these face shapes tend to have long features with a rounded forehead and chin. Wigs with layers and thick bangs flatter this face shape.

Keep in mind that these are only suggestions, not strict rules. The most important thing is that you find a hairstyle that makes you feel confident and comfortable.

Wig Care

It can take time to care for a wig. Wigs need to be properly maintained so you can wear them with confidence. Here are some maintenance tips from experts and MyBCTeam members:

  • Wigs that are worn daily should be washed every 10 to 14 days, and more often if you use a lot of hair spray or styling cream.
  • After washing, allow the wig to dry on a portable wig stand. This will let air circulate through it and help it maintain its shape.
  • Wig conditioners can help protect synthetic fibers and give them a healthy shine.
  • Wigs, even synthetic ones, can take eight to 12 hours to dry.

Tips for Wearing Wigs

Wigs can be warm, especially in hot weather. A headscarf, turban, or other light head covering such as a baseball cap might be more comfortable to wear during summer months.

Warm weather and heat can also affect the look of the wig and cause the hair to frizz. MyBCTeam members had tips for avoiding frizzy wigs and split ends. “Collars, scarves, and sweat make the wigs frizzy, so go as short as is suitable for you,” said one member. “And stay away from the oven with it on!”

Other members suggest going to a hair stylist for a wig trim to handle split ends. While you can style your wig with products, some members just use water and twist back sections of hair with bobby pins to achieve new looks.

Help With Wig Costs

Aside from finding a free or low-cost wig from nonprofit organizations, you may also be able to get health insurance coverage for your wig. Ask your health insurance company if it covers wigs for cancer patients and what the procedure is for making a claim. Make sure your doctor writes a prescription listing the wig as a “cranial prosthesis” or a “hair prosthesis.”

Even if you have health insurance coverage, you will most likely have to cover the cost of your wig upfront. Keep a copy of the receipt for your wig. If your health insurance company won’t cover it, you may be able to claim it as a medical-expense tax deduction.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyBCTeam is the social network for people with breast cancer and their loved ones. On MyBCTeam, more than 54,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with breast cancer.

Have you worn a wig during or after breast cancer treatment? How did you find one you liked? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

Posted on December 6, 2021
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Barbara Boughton is an award-winning freelance health writer living in northern California. Learn more about her here.

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