When Betina Roberts was looking for a chemotherapy wig, she wanted one that resembled her own hair: long, curly and red.
But the 40-year-old mother of five couldn’t find one among the drawers of loaner wigs offered by the CancerCare facility in Brandon, Man.
“They don’t fit well, they’re well worn,” she told CTVNews.ca. “I couldn’t find anything that even remotely resembled who I was or what I wanted to look like.”
So she went to a local wig store and got fitted for one similar to her own red hair. Off work and with just $500 of insurance coverage for the wig, she couldn’t justify getting a real one, which she says would have cost her “well over $1,000.” “The cost of purchasing a real wig is just so cost-prohibitive,” she said. The synthetic wig she eventually bought cost $683.
Wig options might get even more limiting in the future. The Pantene Beautiful Lengths program, which provides free real-hair wigs to Canadian Cancer Society wig banks, will no longer accept hair donations in 2019, citing decreased demand for real-hair wigs. The Pantene program has accepted hair donations, created, shipped and donated real-hair wigs to Canadian Cancer Society wig banks across the country since 2006.
“Over the last several years, synthetic-hair technology has vastly improved, giving synthetic hair wigs more of a ‘real-hair’ feel, making them lighter, cooler to wear, and easier to style,” Pantene said in a statement. “With these advancements, synthetic wigs are now the preferred wig choice for cancer patients.”
While donations will stop in 2019, the program is expected to fulfill real-hair wig wishes until 2022. After then, women with cancer could have fewer inexpensive options for real-hair needs. The Cancer Society said in a statement that it is “looking for new options for those who wish to donate their hair.”
Real-hair wigs are more expensive because they are typically made overseas and are labour intensive, said Michael Suba, president of Continental Hair in Toronto, Ont. There is little wig manufacturing done in Europe or North America, he said, noting the costs of paying a wig maker would be “crippling” for salons. Despite the expense, Suba has seen a trend away from synthetic wigs, unlike the Cancer Society. “My experience has been more women are graduating to the human hair wigs,” he said.
Roberts, who is now cancer-free, wasn’t informed of a national free real-hair wig program, which she says she likely would have used if available. She preferred the idea of having real hair and found the synthetic wig difficult to work with. “I couldn’t manage that synthetic wig for the life of me,” she said. “The synthetic wig was pretty, but it still felt plastic-y to me.”
Still, when she put it on, she felt a sense of empowerment, she recalled. “The first time I put it on I actually felt like a human being again.”
Her own red hair began growing back in January and is about three inches long now. Earlier this year, she mailed her wig to a Hamilton, Ont., woman she met online who didn’t have insurance to buy one.