- Associated Press - Friday, January 24, 2014

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) - Walk into the back room at Ellis Fischel Cancer Center’s gift shop in Columbia, and you’ll be greeted by a bevy of well-coiffed mannequin heads.

For five years, this is where gift shop supervisor Edlyn Donovan has been helping patients who are losing their hair to cancer choose wigs.

These wigs can be an important part of a cancer patient’s recovery, the Columbia Daily Tribune (http://bit.ly/1e9UilZ ) reports.

“Hair is an emotional thing for most people. It’s how people see you,” Donovan said.

Hair also is part of how people see themselves. While cancer patients understand on an intellectual level that they will lose their hair, Donovan said it’s in her wig boutique that they understand on an emotional level what it will mean to lose their hair. It’s not uncommon for a patient to have a breakdown in Donovan’s wig boutique, she said.

Donovan isn’t just a wig fitter, but a good listener.

And it’s this role that inspired Donovan to make it easier for patients to get wigs. About two years ago, Donovan was helping a young woman with a wig fitting. The patient didn’t have the money to buy a new wig, and the wigs that had been donated and refurbished had come from much older patients.

“I knew I had the perfect wig, but I couldn’t just give it to her. I thought, ‘Well, Edlyn, I’ll just buy it.’ But I can’t buy a wig for everybody,” Donovan said.

Then while watching television at home that night, she saw a commercial for a charity in which donors sponsor a child in need. Inspired, Donovan decided to organize a program through which donors could provide the funds for qualifying patients to choose wigs at no cost.

And so the No One Fights Alone wig sponsorship program was born.

Most of the wigs at the Ellis Fischel boutique are in the $100 to $150 range - considerably less than what one would pay at a wig shop or salon, Donovan said - but this still is an extraordinary expense for many cancer patients. Furthermore, Donovan said, the vast majority of insurance companies will not cover the cost of a wig.

“People are generous,” Donovan said, “but often patients are reluctant to take money from friends. A sponsorship program allows it to be more anonymous.”

Of note, Donovan said, is that a patient doesn’t need to be receiving care at Ellis Fischel to qualify for a wig through No One Fights Alone, and she has helped patients from all over the state choose wigs.

In the past six months, Donovan said, she assisted 125 patients with wig fittings. Of these, she sold 38, gave away 21 new wigs through No One Fights Alone and gave away 25 that had been donated and refurbished.

University of Missouri Health Care Director of Development Kellie Ann Coats said in the past two years, the program has raised about $35,000.

This sum includes an endowment of $25,000 from Ellen and Guy Brown.

Ellen Brown recalls the importance of finding a good wig when her mother-in-law was diagnosed with breast cancer in the 1970s.

“Being a Southern lady, she really enjoyed her hair and always looked beautiful and went to the beauty parlor once a week,” Brown said. “When she lost her hair, she needed a wig.”

Finding a wig was not easy. Brown’s mother-in-law, who lived in Fayetteville, Ark., had to travel to Tulsa, Okla., to get the wig. But it was worth the effort.

“It was almost the same as her old hair. She looked like herself again - oh, exactly,” Brown said.

Looking like one’s self again is especially important for a patient whose appearance is changing in so many other ways, Donovan said. For this reason, she likes to see patients as soon after their diagnoses as possible so she can get a feel for what their natural hair looks like.

Often, Donovan said, she knows instantly which wig in her inventory will best suit the patient. However, experience has taught her that the first wig a patient tries on will look especially strange to him or her.

“All they see is the wig,” Donovan said.

So, she starts with something else and gradually works toward the wig she has in mind.

Sometimes, Donovan said, a patient requests a style very different from what he or she had before. Perhaps the patient had always wanted to be a platinum blonde or a redhead. Donovan usually tries to steer patients away from drastic changes such as these.

“Usually, that’s not really what they want. They want to be themselves again,” Donovan said.

One particular story drove this point home for Donovan. A patient visited the boutique to find a new wig to replace the one she had been wearing. Donovan didn’t know what the patient looked like before she started chemotherapy, but the wig she chose was a hit.

“The tears just started streaming. She said, ‘I look like me again,’ ” Donovan said.

There’s quite a bit that goes into helping a patient find that “me” wig.

First, there’s fit. Wigs typically come in three sizes - petite, regular and large - but they still have to be fitted to the person’s head. If it’s still not right after some minor adjustments, Donovan can take it apart and rebuild it.

Color is important, too. Donovan works with five wig companies to ensure she has a variety of colors. Often, these wigs have both highlights and lowlights, which creates visual depth and a more natural look.

Some wigs are sewn onto caps made of monofilament, which allows some of the scalp to show just as it would with a person’s natural hair. Additionally, Donovan said, a wig might be a little thinner in some spots, which mimics natural hair growth. Some wigs also have lace fronts, which helps create the illusion of a natural hairline for people who like to wear their hair pulled back.

Although a patient can buy a wig made from human hair, Donovan said most prefer synthetics because they’re easier to care for. Wigs made from real hair must be combed and restyled after wash. Synthetics, on the other hand, are permanently set in their styles.

“It’s pretty much shake and wear,” Donovan said.

Most patients will start to grow their hair back after finishing chemotherapy, Donovan said, and it’s not uncommon for the wigs she provided to find their way back to her boutique. Donovan is able to clean and refurbish them to donate to new patients.

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Information from: Columbia Daily Tribune, http://www.columbiatribune.com