10 Things I Wish I'd Known About Wigs Before Starting Chemotherapy

I'm one of those people who's good at staying positive. But when I learned that in addition to having cancer I had to go through chemotherapy and lose my hair, I wasn't happy. It turned out I was needn't have worried. It wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it would be. There was even some fun to be had.

Since I've been going through this experience, a lot of people have asked me all sorts of questions about wigs. Six months ago, I knew nothing about wigs. Now I've learned so much that I thought I'd share everything I wish I'd known when I began the process.

Here are the ten things I wish I'd known about wigs before starting chemo:

1. You don't need to spend a fortune to buy a wig everyone thinks is real.

Wigs made of real hair, which are more expensive, seem to last longer than synthetic ones. But inexpensive wigs can look just as good. I was worried I'd have to invest in a super-expensive wig to feel comfortable leaving the house, but that didn't turn out to be the case at all. What do you think? Can you tell which is real?

2. The cost of buying wigs. 

Some insurance covers the cost of a good wig if you have to have chemotherapy. The American Cancer Society also offers a free wig to cancer patients, that you can select in person at your local office. Beauty stores offer a range of wigs. My wigs cost between $35 and $250. My favorite cost $60.

3. What to expect at the wig store. 

I bought my wigs at beauty stores, which stock lots of wigs and have knowledgeable saleswomen. You'll need to wear a nylon stocking cap when you try on wigs, and all the stores I visited charged around $2 for the wig cap. Many beauticians can also trim your wig so it better fits your face.

4. Take your friends with you when you go wig shopping.

Taking your friends with you is great to turn the experience of temporarily losing your hair into something fun. It also has the added bonus of letting your friends pick things out that you'd never select for yourself. My friends were so right!

5. How to get a good fit. 

I initially imagined it would be necessary to get a custom-made wig, or at least to measure my head to get the right size. I learned that neither was necessary. Wigs have sizing straps so that you can adjust the size on your head. There are also cut-outs that fall above your ears to make it easy to put the wig on straight. Not all wigs will fit you, though, so you'll still need to try them on.

6. How to get a comfortable fit. 

That stocking cap you used at the store to try on wigs can help if your scalp is sensitive and the wig feels itchy. I didn't find that to be the case most of the time, but it was nice to have some nylon stocking caps when I wanted one. I was also given a silicone wig strap that was meant to keep a wig in place, but it didn't work well with my glasses. That didn't turn out to be a problem either. If you've correctly used those sizing straps on the inside of the wig, the wig doesn't move at all throughout the day. (I live in California, though, so I haven't tested this in bad weather conditions.)

7. If your doctor says you'll lose your hair, go ahead and cut it short before that happens.

Having short hair will make it less traumatic as your hair thins. It also lets you try out short hair styles so you can see what you might like to do while your hair grows back out. I tried out two lengths of short hair. Surprisingly, super-short looked pretty damn good.

8. Buy more than one wig.

You're going to need to wash your wig, so even as a practical matter it's a good idea to have more than one. Some wigs will also become worn around the edges (I found it to be the less expensive ones), and it's much easier to purchase an extra wig before you start feeling poorly. And the biggest reason to buy more than one wig? To have fun with the experience.

9. Yes, you want to have some fun with your wigs. 

I had the same long curly hair for twenty years, from age 16 to 36. It worked for me, so I had no reason to change it. I only changed because I was forced to do so. But now I know I don't have to keep that style to feel like myself.

10. Go with your gut. 

Regardless of what anyone else says, you'll know when you've found the wigs you feel happy with. I tried on some wigs that might have technically looked good on me, but they didn't feel right. I got the ones I loved, and that's one of the reasons this challenging year has gone by as quickly as it has.