Combating ‘Hair Interruption’
By Mark Morris
When a cancer patient goes through chemotherapy treatment, feelings of nausea, fatigue, and hair loss are all common physical reactions. For women, loss of hair often adds an emotional element of humiliation and shame.
“I don’t call it hair loss; I call it hair interruption,” said Joan Quinn, coordinator for the Wig Boutique at the Cancer House of Hope (CHH) in West Springfield, who sees her mission as helping women look good and feel better about themselves while their hair grows back.
And she is passionate about her work, as will become abundantly clear.
The Center for Human Development (CHD) runs the Cancer House of Hope as a free community resource to provide comfort and support in a home-like atmosphere for anyone going through cancer treatment. Yoga classes and Reiki massage are among the many services offered there.
As for wigs … Joseph Kane, former director of the Cancer House of Hope (he left that position for another opportunity earlier this month), admits that, while they’ve always been available, they were often treated as an afterthought.
“If someone asked for a wig, we’d pull one out of a plastic tub, and it usually looked like it had bed head; it wasn’t ideal,” he said, adding that this important service has come a long way in recent years thanks to Quinn, who not only provided the drive to create and stock a boutique where there was none, but also staff it with volunteers, maintain a steady inventory, and raise needed funding to keep the operation thriving.
Our story begins with a visit to CHH by one of Quinn’s neighbors, who left her tour thinking that the wig service, such as it was, needed serious help, and that Quinn, a cosmetology-field veteran of more than 50 years who spent 26 years teaching the subject at Springfield Technical Community College, was just the person to provide that help.
“If someone asked for a wig, we’d pull one out of a plastic tub, and it usually looked like it had bed head; it wasn’t ideal.”
“My neighbor said, ‘oh, Joan, I know your standards, and this doesn’t meet them. You should stop in and see them.’”
She did, and this was, coincidentally, after an answered prayer left her looking for a way to give back — and in a big way.
Indeed, a few years earlier, Quinn’s son suffered from a heart condition that required a transplant. As he was living in Iowa City, Quinn flew there to help. “During that time, I prayed that he would receive a heart transplant and promised God that, if he lived, I’d give back tenfold.”
Her son did receive a transplant and is healthy today.
Feeling that she now had to deliver on her promise, Quinn had no idea how she could help the American Heart Assoc. But when the need for a better wig situation presented itself at CHH, she knew immediately she could make a difference.
And she has. Now in operation for more than three years, the Wig Boutique is currently booking appointments five days a week with three volunteer consultants. Quinn estimates the facility has provided more than 300 wigs for cancer patients since opening.
For this issue and its focus on healthcare, BusinessWest explores how the Wig Boutique came to be and why the services it provides are so important to women battling cancer.
Root of the Problem
As she retold the story of how the boutique was launched, Quinn noted that, under some health-insurance plans, cancer patients can purchase a wig and get reimbursed after the fact. In order to be covered under MassHealth, cancer patients must travel to its contracted wig provider located in Worcester.
When Kane learned that three wig providers in the area went out of business, the thought of a dedicated wig program began to sound like a viable idea.
“When I met Joan, she had a vision to make the wig boutique feel like a higher-end service,” Kane said. Likewise, Quinn credits Kane for what she called his “blind faith” that she could convert one of the rooms in the Cancer House of Hope into a boutique on a zero budget.
The energetic Quinn began by figuring out how many wigs CHH had and how to get them into presentable shape. Tapping into her network, she convinced her former teaching colleagues at STCC to open their cosmetology classrooms during summer break and made arrangements to have 110 wigs washed. “We even brought in people who didn’t know how to wash wigs, but we taught them.”
Now with a starting inventory, Quinn needed to purchase shelving material and clean lighting for the room. “It had to be organized, and it had to be cheerful,” she explained. “I could not envision people coming in to look through a tub of wigs.”
Before she even had shelves, Quinn approached local businesses and asked them to sponsor $20 shelf tags to be placed in front of each displayed wig. In a short time, she raised enough to pay for the building materials.
While planning the design of the room at the Home Depot, Quinn lamented that she had enough money for materials but not enough to cover labor. The Home Depot associate told her about a program the store sponsors where it would pay for the labor as a donation, a big step toward executing Quinn’s vision.
The finished room resembles a true boutique, displaying 59 wigs under clean lighting with a fitting chair and a full-length mirror. Kane said the boutique provides a unique experience for cancer patients.
“It gives someone who is losing her hair a chance to come in, meet with a professional, and leave with something that does not look like a wig — all for free,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s really powerful.”
When women first come in for a consultation, Quinn said, they are often reliving the horror of having cancer and confronting the reality of their hair falling out.
“Many of the women we see are depressed and fearful of taking off their head covering,” Quinn said. “While we can’t take away their fear, we reassure them that we work with many people in their situation and that this is a safe place.”
She added that the dozens of wigs displayed in the room help to shift the women’s focus away from themselves and onto which style of wig they might want.
“Current wig styles change quickly, so we’re always looking for new styles and quality wigs,” she noted, adding that she approached Sally’s Beauty Supply in West Springfield and left her name on a piece of paper to call if they ever had wigs they wanted to donate. The manager of Sally’s happened to pin Quinn’s contact information on a bulletin board, and one day, when the company discontinued its line of high-end wigs, Quinn got the call and filled two shopping carts with donated wigs. In addition to local donations, CHH receives wig and accessory donations from as far away as North Carolina and California.
Quinn told BusinessWest she is grateful for her network of volunteers and professionals, whom she refers to as her “angels.” She works with many salons in the area whose owners are often former students.
Quinn approached salons with a fundraising idea for the Wig Boutique called “Hang Cancer Out to Dry,” consisting of a small, desk-sized clothesline where customers can attach cash donations with miniature clothespins.
“In its first 17 months, this effort has raised more than $10,000,” Quinn said, adding that it’s not unusual for a salon owner to raise $300 from customer donations and then match it with a $300 donation of their own.
While Quinn pursues donations with great drive and enthusiasm, she also goes after volunteers the same way. Jan D’Orazio was shopping for Christmas decorations at Michael’s when Quinn approached her and asked if she was a hairdresser. D’Orazio replied that many years ago she was, but hadn’t done it in a long time.
“I must have been having a good hair day, because the next thing I knew, Joan was showing me pictures of the boutique on her iPad and encouraging me to join her,” said D’Orazio. “By the time I got to my car, I said, ‘what did I just agree to do?’”
Quinn freely admits she chased down D’Orazio and is glad she did. “Jan is very calm, and she makes people feel comfortable.”
Joni Provost also works with D’Orazio and Quinn as a volunteer coordinator for the Wig Boutique. The three women provide consulting services on selecting wigs. They do not cut or style the wigs, but encourage having that done at a hairdresser. Quinn said sometimes a woman brings along her hairdresser to the boutique. “We want people to feel this could be their hair and their length.”
A Cut Above
D’Orazio said one of the most rewarding parts of working at the Wig Boutique is seeing her clients change in demeanor.
She said many women who come in are feeling down and have what she described as a “cancer look.” The consultation helps to brighten their day and change their whole outlook.
“Last week, a lady came in who is fighting her third bout with breast cancer. When she was getting ready to leave, she was so happy and told me, ‘I feel like Cinderella; I don’t look like I have cancer anymore.’”
Those sentiments speak to how the boutique is providing not only hair and a certain look, but a chance for women to feel better about themselves as they confront perhaps the most difficult time in their lives.
Thus, it’s changing lives in a profound way.