Losing her hair was the most traumatic experience of Betty Ann Gomes’ breast cancer journey.
“After the first chemotherapy, I started losing my hair, which fell off in clumps. When I woke up, there was hair everywhere and it was very heartbreaking,” says Gomes, 57, a volunteer with the National Cancer Society Malaysia (NCSM) and vice-president of Pink Unity.
To avoid the pain of losing her hair, she started shaving her hair bit-by-bit, but it was traumatic.
The memory is still vivid, even though Gomes was diagnosed with Stage Three breast cancer 16 years ago.
“With your breast, it is hidden, but with hair, you can’t hide. Losing my hair made me feel inferior, like I wasn’t a whole person.”
Her cancer diagnosis turned her world upside down.
At that time, Gomes was a senior operations manager at an international company, and a mother to two children aged seven and five.
“I underwent two surgeries to remove the cancer and had a lumpectomy. All in, I had six chemo sessions, 30 radiotherapy sessions along with Tamoxifen, a hormone therapy which I took for five years.
I have been cancer free since then,” Gomes shares.
To prepare for her hair loss, a side effect of chemotherapy, Gomes bought a wig before undergoing chemotherapy and wore it to work.
“The wig was comfortable and I felt confident. At that time I was fearful of being judged,” she recalls.
Gomes adds that hair is so tied with being a woman and to beauty. Even though she thought her hair was thin, it was hers, so losing it was like losing her identity.
“After losing my hair, I felt very naked. My scalp was tender and it felt like there was no protection.”
At home, she would wear a scarf but she would always wear a wig when she steps outside.
“As I felt inferior, I would sleep with a scarf on and in the middle of the night if the scarf came off, I would get up and tie it back on,” she reveals.
Gomes got her wigs from a wig shop in Sunway Pyramid, Petaling Jaya. She bought three wigs in a mahogany tint – two short bobs and a long one – and she chose natural wigs for a natural look and feel. It cost her RM800 for the short wigs and RM1,200 for the long one.
“I wore the wigs for over 10 hours a day and it felt comfortable unless I was outdoors in the heat. The shop would wash and blow dry the wigs for me fortnightly.”
Gomes received plenty of compliments when she wore them. “I’m vain, so the wig made my cancer journey a lot easier. Some women are comfortable leaving the house bald – what you want is important,” Gomes says.
Better options today
In 2002, Sengolmany Irudayam, a mother of four daughters from Penang was diagnosed with Stage Three breast cancer.
She underwent a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy in June 2002 and the treatments were completed in November that year.
“Seven days after my first chemo, my hair started to fall. My head was in pain and my scalp was very itchy. It felt like someone was pulling at my hair forcefully. On the ninth day, I lost all my hair; they came off in clumps,” Sengolmany, 56, a homemaker, recalls.
She felt ashamed. “I was very embarrassed and worried about facing my young daughters.
“The hospital recommended a wig shop in Penang and I bought my first wig there. It was so difficult to choose the right wig as they were all styled as straight short hair,” she shares.
Sengolmany says she bought a wig closest to her hair colour at RM780 – which she says was expensive but she didn’t have a choice then – before she started chemotherapy.
“The wig gave me confidence and helped me face people. I wore the wig from the day I lost all my hair until I completed chemo. Before going to bed I would air dry it and twice a week I would wash it with a mild shampoo,” she says.
“No one knew I was wearing a wig back then as I told them that I had straightened my hair and coloured it.
“There were people who stared whenever I wore the wig but I was not bothered. Most of my relatives were not aware that I was wearing a wig.”
Today, Sengolmany – who volunteers at NCSM and Pink Unity – says there are more wigs available in the market so cancer patients who would like to buy a wig have more choices now.
“I want cancer patients to not lose hope, to build confidence and to know that it is just another journey in your life. I did my best to look beautiful whenever I had to leave the house and this small act just gave me confidence to face anyone.”
For more information on NCSM contact toll-free helpline: 1-800-88-1000 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wigs on loan
Through a collaboration with a hair salon, the National Cancer Society Malaysia (NCSM) now offers cancer patients the use of a wig when they need it the most.
“With this collaboration we got people to donate their hair to be made into natural hair wigs that we can loan out to cancer patients who have lost their hair,” says Adeline Joseph, head of Research and Wellness Centre at NCSM.
Hair loss is one of the most traumatic side effects faced by cancer patients who undergo chemotherapy. The NCSM says that while many would like to wear a wig while waiting for their hair to grow, the cost can be prohibitive, hence the centre now provides a minimal deposit for the loan of a wig.
According to Joseph, all the patient needs to do is to call NCSM for an appointment and they can come in for a fitting and to choose a wig that suits them. There is a refundable deposit of RM50 for a wig and it is loaned out for six months.
NCSM currently has 40 wigs of natural hair in stock and they also have wigs that were donated by cancer survivors who don’t need their wigs anymore or received through anonymous donations.
“If the cancer patient needs the wig for more than six months they can just let us know. Before they return the wig we just require that it be cleaned and ready for the next user,” Joseph says.
While using the wig, she says, “If need be, the cancer patient can have the wig re-styled and adjusted at their own hair salon to fit them better.”
For more information on NCSM wigs for loan, contact The Resource & Wellness Centre, NCSM at 603-2691 7624 (Mila/Adeline).