Personal Appearance's Importance on the Psychology of Breast Cancer Patients

Beth Brophy Health Guide March 14, 2007
  • I feel so strongly about my fellow blogger PJ Hamel’s suggestion that you skip the wig to save money during breast cancer treatment that I am compelled to offer a dissenting view. My experience was the complete opposite of hers. I needed that wig very badly, even though it itched and was uncomfortable and I couldn’t wait to not need it anymore.

    I was 41 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. My children were young, 5 and 8. I was very concerned that they not be traumatized by their mother having cancer, and that included looking as normal as possible to them and their friends (i.e. not different than the other mothers who had hair and no cancer). The other mothers in their schools were not picking the children up sporting a bald head covered by a baseball cap or scarf.

    Of course, I looked pretty terrible during treatment. My skin was, as a close friend of mine put it, “a shade not found in nature.” Aside from my children, I needed the wig to at least try to pretend that I wasn’t completely disfigured. I was not at all adjusted to what was underneath the bandages of my breast reconstruction surgery. But at least to the outside world, my wounds were invisible. No one who saw me on the street, or in the supermarket, or at a doctor’s appointment, had to know that I had cancer. And that privacy was important to me. A bald head, or a bad wig is a dead giveaway.

    I needed, psychologically, to maintain the fiction that looked normal. The wig was my cover for that. One of the horrible memories that I can smile at today is that before I lost my hair my sister took me to the wig store, and told the woman working there, “She wants a wig that looks exactly like her real hair. And she doesn’t care at all what it costs!”

    I’m not excessively vain, but I do care about my appearance. My sister was right about that. I had a wig made, at great cost (around $2,000), out of human hair. It looked so real that a few times during treatment, acquaintances--such as other mothers in the carpool line who only knew me vaguely-- told me that they liked my new haircut.

    Another time, a colleague at a work party who hadn’t seen me for a few months, but was fully aware of my cancer, told me she liked my haircut. “You know, I’m bald. It’s a wig,” I reminded her gently. Her eyes filled with tears and she apologized profusely, but I really didn’t mind. I was glad she could see me, and not the wig.

    PJ is right that good wigs are expensive and not always covered by insurance. And if you have to choose between the wig and feeding your family, go ahead and wear a baseball cap. I also agree that if you don’t care about looking like everyone else for your kids’ sake, or for your own, then skip it. But as much as I hated the wig, not having it would have been much worse, at a time when I was extremely psychologically vulnerable. So, consider both sides of this --PJ’s and mine--before you decide. Sometimes, money isn’t the only consideration.