When I Was Diagnosed With Cancer, My Wig Became A Lifeline

Sharon Gower and her husband were diagnosed with cancer at the same time. When she went shopping for a wig, she found a particular kind of comfort that became key to her fight.

wigs and cancer

After the first round of chemo for my breast cancer, I was sitting on the couch with my 10-year-old son, twisting a piece of hair, which had become quite brittle, around my finger and it just came out in my hand. I was like, “Oh, this is it.” When I was diagnosed, and found out I’d go through a double mastectomy, chemo and radiation, I knew I’d lose my hair at some point — but you’re never sure when it’s going to happen, or how.

I always thought I would get breast cancer. There are five women in my family who have it. I don’t have the gene (I was tested) but because of the family history, I always felt it would happen. That’s why I started going for regular mammograms at 36 — but they never found anything.

When I was 42, right around Christmas, I had a cold, and when I coughed, I felt this sharp pain in my chest. I thought, “Oh that’s weird.” I started moving my hand around and I felt it: a lump. I remember lying down, and putting one hand over my head and feeling it with the other. My husband, Steve, wasn’t home — he was in the hospital. He had what we thought at the time was diverticulitis [a digestive disease that causes severe pain], so he was in and out of the hospital a lot.

Doctors sent me for a mammogram and an ultrasound, and I was diagnosed in January, 2013, with stage 1B breast cancer. I had two tumours. One was 2 cm and the other was very small. I also had a full breast that was DCIS — Ductal carcinoma in situ, when abnormal cells are found in the milk duct. It’s considered the earliest form of breast cancer. I was terrified. I was surprised at how scared and upset I was, considering I always felt like it would happen. But I thought I’d be a little bit older. I have two sons, who were 10 and 14 at the time — and of course the first thing you think is that you’re going to leave your kids, right?

Plus-size model Elly Mayday: If I hadn’t trusted my instincts, I’d be dead
Plus-size model Elly Mayday: If I hadn’t trusted my instincts, I’d be dead

Two months after I was diagnosed, my husband went for a colonoscopy. It was actually on our 18th wedding anniversary. They told him he had colon cancer. I was like, “Uh, no. . . You cannot have colon cancer. I have breast cancer!”

We went through treatment at the same time (and we’re both in remission now). I had six rounds of chemo and 16 rounds of radiation plus a bilateral mastectomy, and Steve had 12 rounds of chemotherapy. He didn’t have radiation, but he did have a very long and complicated surgery to remove his tumour. It was very scary, but also unique in that we both completely understood what the other person was going through. Treatment took a toll on us in different ways; for me it was more mental and for him it was more physical. We tried very hard to offset each other’s needs, and now we have an even stronger understanding of each other because of this experience.

As soon as I was told I needed chemotherapy, I knew I would need a good wig. I work in a professional environment —I go to sales calls, I call on customers. There was a certain pride I felt in always looking my best, even during the worst of times. It made me feel strong, like I was going to continue, no the matter how difficult things were or how terrible I felt.

So I spent some time on Google and found a place that specialized in compassionate wig fitting. The staff there are the reason I felt prepared to lose my hair.

On my first visit there, I met with a stylist named Colleen. We discussed human hair vs. synthetic vs. a blend. It wasn’t like talking to a car salesman, like she was trying to get me to buy the most expensive wig. It was really about, what do I want? What do I need? I told them about my husband having cancer, too. Three days later, I got a little package in the mail, with a card and some skincare products. I was overwhelmed by their kindness.

Are we winning the fight against cancer in women?
Are we winning the fight against cancer in women?

Colleen had prepared me for the fact that one day, my hair would just start falling out. So, after that night on the couch with my son, I called them again and made an appointment. I was a little nervous, so I had a close friend come with me. I felt like I was in good hands. I also think I was on autopilot — the situation with my husband was serious, and this felt like it was just something I had to do as part of my treatment.

I sat down in the chair and Colleen turned me away from the mirror and shaved off my hair. She asked me if I wanted to see and when I said okay, she turned me around. I looked at my head and thought to myself, “Okay, this is why I need a wig! I do not have a head [that looks good bald].”

Then she put the wig on my head and started cutting. She knew what I looked like before, and how I liked to wear my hair — I always had a heavy bang. But unlike my own hair, I wanted a long wig. My thought process was, if I had to lose my hair, I wanted to have hair that I wouldn’t have been able to grow on my own. When she cut it, it was absolutely perfect. Like, literally perfect in every single way. My girlfriend and I went for lunch afterwards, and I felt like people were looking at me. At first, I thought, “Oh my god, they know I’m wearing a wig.” But now I think they were looking at me because my hair looked so amazing.

One of the hardest things about cancer is the feeling that everyone’s life is just carrying on as normal while yours is so uncertain. You can lose that feeling that you will automatically have the privilege to grow old and watch your kids become adults and even have grandchildren one day. At least that’s how it was for me. But when I put the wig on, no one knew that I had cancer and that my husband had cancer and that we were going through something terrible. I feel like the wig saved me.

One thing my wig wasn’t, however, was cheap. I chose a super-long human hair wig and it was around $1700. I was fortunate because my company benefits covered about $500 of the cost. My family members were surprised at the cost, but supportive. The few acquaintances I told about how much it cost were shocked, though — I could tell from their reactions that they thought it was excessive.

But for me, it wasn’t. It was so important for me to have this one thing. After everything that had been taken away from me — my health, the feeling that I was going to be okay to watch my kids grow up, my breasts — I just needed this one thing that was for me.