Although she’s just started chemotherapy for breast cancer, Debra Nighswonger is ready for the inevitable.
“Losing my breasts was bad enough for me,” the Leon resident said. “But losing my hair is going to make me cry. I needed a security blanket for when I lose my hair.”
That’s why within less than two weeks of starting chemo, Nighswonger and her friend Connie Harshbarger, a breast cancer survivor, paid a visit to the resource room at the new offices of the American Cancer Society at 330 S. Main, Suite 100, in downtown Wichita.
There, within cool gray walls, they found a room that has a boutique-like feel. And Nighswonger found a wig, a scarf that she can wear as a turban and some hats.
“The Bible calls this our crown of glory,” said Nighswonger, as she tugged at the ends of her shoulder-length gray hair, her eyes getting teary, “and I don’t want to be without my crown of glory.”
While cancer patients often feel powerless about the physical changes caused by cancer, they don’t have to be powerless in dealing with those changes, experts say.
There’s a loss of hair, including eyelashes and eyebrows, and sometimes treatment can severely dry out the skin, said Dana Kemp, High Plains Division regional communications director for the American Cancer Society.
To help women cope with those changes, the American Cancer Society and the local cancer support organization Victory in the Valley provide loan services where women can acquire wigs and other head coverings, mastectomy bras and prostheses for free, along with makeover programs.
Women can receive individual makeover consultations at Victory in the Valley. Through the American Cancer Society’s Look Good … Feel Better program, women can participate in a two-hour group class on coping with appearance-related side effects of cancer.
“Volunteer cosmetologists – all certified professionals – help patients enhance their appearance using a 12-step program developed especially for women undergoing radiation and chemotherapy,” Kemp said about the program, through which women also receive $200 worth of free makeup products. “The cosmetologists demonstrate how women can use makeup, wigs and other accessories to look like themselves again, restoring their self-image, confidence and sense of control.”
In different ways, the American Cancer Society and Victory in the Valley have created places where women can feel comfortable and inspired as they choose their new wigs and other items. About 12 to 15 women a month come to the American Cancer Society for the loaned items. In the past year, about 360 women used the loaned boutique items and makeover services of Victory in the Valley.
At the American Cancer Society’s new offices, the loan space has more than doubled in size. The new facility also allowed the staff to create a more welcoming, comfortable atmosphere, with wood cabinets and labeled wicker ottomans providing efficient storage for the wigs donated by wig companies and individuals and for other donated hair accessories.
In the Victory in the Valley boutique, wall art proclaiming “Faith,” “Hope,” “Love” and “Live” hangs above the vanity and mirror where women can see the results of their new wigs and makeovers.
When Nighswonger and Harshbarger visited the American Cancer Society, administrative assistant Peggy Cardenas provided advice on selecting a wig, on how to add a brooch to a hat to change the look and how to tie a turban.
“I think the neatest thing about helping ladies is when they try a new color” for their hair, said Phyllis Loggins, another administrative assistant who helps women select wigs and accessories. “Some ladies just beam. It makes you feel good to see someone walk out feeling better about themselves and looking good.”
That kind of transformation is what Diana Thomi and Sharon Holcomb at Victory of the Valley enjoy being a part of, too.
Thomi is executive director of the organization founded by her mother, a breast cancer survivor. Thomi recalled the story of one woman who had come in, looking drained and gaunt, and later emerged from their loan closet with a new wig and a makeover.
“She said, ‘Look at me. I’m beautiful. I’m going to call my husband and have him take me to lunch,’ ” Thomi said. “And this was a woman who didn’t even have the energy earlier to walk up the steps. It was a transformation carried out by a group of women who care.”
“It is very rewarding to work with these gals of all ages – unfortunately some as young as their 20s, to older women in their 80s.” said Holcomb, the Victory in the Valley volunteer who runs the women’s boutique with other former beauticians. “It feels good to make a difference in helping someone get through that part of their cancer journey. Losing hair is a big issue for women.”
Victory in the Valley provides other free and loaned items to help cancer patients get though treatments. Often chest-imbedded treatment catheters are located right where a seat belt crosses a person, creating a painful rub. To help ease that pain and to ensure cancer patients continue to use seat belts, Victory in the Valley provides small handmade pillows that can be attached to the seat belt as a cushioned barrier. Other items, such as a neck pillow and lap quilts, provided in a “comfort bag,” are useful accessories while a patient undergoes chemo treatment seated in a chair.
Victory in the Valley, at 3755 E. Douglas, also loans medical equipment, such as walkers, canes and portable toilets, to help cancer patients during treatment. It also accepts donations of such equipment.
Victory in the Valley and the American Cancer Society provide their services to cancer patients for free. The two groups also accept donations for their women’s boutique loan services.
“It’s really comforting to have these free services,” said Nighswonger, a department head at Dillons in Augusta, “especially when you already have a lot of bills.”