On Embracing the Wig After a Cancer Diagnosis
Mary Ladd Finds Small Pleasures in an Altered Reality
Months before I was diagnosed, I bought a wig and decided to try it out for a special date night. When my husband saw me in a jewel-colored blue dress with a long red wig on, he told me, “You look like a prostitute.”
I thought I looked like a curvy 1950s movie siren. Or a gussied-up version of maybe the Little Mermaid, if she had a hot auntie?
Cipriano told me I was a witch. Oops!
That first wig is not subtle, and the length and shade of hair probably too crayon-red bright to look normal and real. With any wig, I want to look like a more exciting version of myself, but after receiving those witch/hooker comments, I stow the wig messily in a cabinet without wearing it outside.
Fast-forward to having cancer. Although most women wear wigs for nine to twelve months when they are ill, fun and saucy informative tips on buying and caring for wigs are scant. I at first feel cautious about wearing a wig. Yet the idea of getting a stable of wigs helps me pretend that I am a mermaid, Beyoncé, Andy Warhol, or Elizabeth Taylor—maybe all of the above.
Shopping for a wig indulges my inner drag queen while literally making me hotter. Like sweaty-hot.
Maybe I seek a spring in my step because cancer makes me so, so, so tired. It’s depressing. I shop for a wig as a treat when I wake up groggy from a two-hour port surgery, by which a tube is attached to the right side of my chest. The port is billed as a helpful way to take the bee-sting feel out of chemo and blood pricks. It’s important to build fun distractions. That means telling myself sure, I can read all the trashy gossip I want in the doctor’s office.
Celeb gossip jazzes up those earth-tone rooms often filled with pale, raspy, and rickety patients.
The wig shopping request confuses Oscar. He asks, “Shouldn’t we go home so that you can rest?”
That’s no way to talk to a pushy patient who knows what she wants. I need to do this. Now.
“My hair is falling out!” Exhibit A: repulsive handfuls of hair in our shower drain.
I feel so afraid and sad and mad at what I see in the mirror. Losing hair and being bald pushes my insecurity buttons, too, because I don’t look normal or feminine or like myself. Or what I will soon come to think of as “pre-cancer” me.
Chris Wilhite and her crew at San Francisco’s Friend-to-Friend shop for sick patients help. I love that Chris has had cancer and knows my friends Amy Callaway and Barbara Denson. Chris seems to know my pain and what I’m going through.
A darker wig doesn’t feel as fun, even though it’s close to my usual hair color. In my buzzy exhausted state, I home in on a short blond number. Oscar says, “Blond? Are you sure?” to each blond selection, and isn’t smiling.
The staff members do not cringe when I try on various blond wigs—none of them are trying to talk me out of anything my little sad heart desires. The women offer pleasing comments for one particular wig. I want to roll my eyes at the man in the room.
“Wow, it really suits you,” one of the staffers offers, as I look at myself in the mirror, feeling puffy and drained yet intrigued.
Maybe the bright colors of the shop give me courage: the space is full of colorful long scarves, caps, and related accessories. It all looks so fashiony, and I remember that I currently need and prefer comfy pants and stretchy tops. Yet, maybe some pops of color would be a good idea.
Money is on my mind. I have so many bills. The shop will give me one wig for free. I don’t think I’d be here without that important factor—Momma doesn’t have extra dollars for anything. Debating how and whether to take any time off work while juggling a mountain of medical debt are common issues for patients like me.
While I browse, I forget that my body hurts and my brain is foggy. Instead of feeling sad about the cancerous rock in my breast, the blond wig gives me something to look forward to. It’s new and fresh. Not scary and overwhelming. Maybe, just for a bit, it’s my new normal.
Soon, I enjoy appreciative looks on the street as I sport my blond look. Hey, everyone, I wore this same dress last month and you didn’t notice!
llustrator Don Asmussen is the creator of Bad Reporter, a twice-weekly political comic strip in the San Francisco Chronicle that is syndicated by Universal Press Syndicate. He is the author of Dog vs. Cat: A Nation Divided and The San Francisco Comic Strip Book of Big-Ass Mocha.
From The Wig Diaries by Mary Ladd. Copyright © 2019 by Mary Ladd. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Wig Industries.