For women of color, a new line of wigs aims to make cancer-related hair loss less traumatic
One of the most traumatic side effects of undergoing cancer treatment is hair loss. The emotional wallop can be particularly acute for women, for whom hair is often intertwined with body image.
Experiencing hair loss is a unique journey for each patient: one woman treated for breast cancer at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA) honored her baldness by having a henna artist tattoo her scalp. Other patients don icy caps that SCCA offers to super-cool the scalp, reducing hair loss from chemotherapy.
Many patients choose wigs, including those offered at Shine, SCCA’s retail store in South Lake Union, which sells wigs to patients and others in the community and provides documentation that patients need to submit for insurance reimbursement. All profits from this and all sales are directed toward SCCA’s patient and family programs.
Since Shine opened a decade ago, it has offered one line of wigs that features high-quality, well-priced products. The synthetic hair comes in multiple styles and colors, but the wigs feature styles that generally appeal to white women. Until recently, none of the options featured coily or ethnic styles that women of color may prefer.
It’s a market niche that Shine has been looking to fill, even moreso after a patient of color asked for more diverse options several years ago. “Long before growing social awareness, we have had conversations about the importance of having offerings that speak to a wide variety of people so that all patients feel represented in our product offerings,” says Carrie Jacobsen, one of Shine’s two store managers.
Now, after years of trying to find the right match, Shine is offering a new line of wigs called Coils to Locs that is targeted to Black women. Shine has several styles in stock including various lengths and textures from short to mid-length, kinky to coily, all with cap construction especially designed for a comfortable, secure fit for oncology patients. Coils to Locs features wigs that do not need to be cut and styled before wear. Pop on and go, these wigs come out of the box ready-to-wear and easy to maintain.
On a recent spring morning, two Shine customers—a daughter and her mother—helped Jacobsen and lead fitter Karen Bierwagen evaluate the new line of wigs. Ardys Scott, a member of Cierra Sisters, an African-American breast cancer survivor and support organization founded by SCCA patient Bridgette Hempstead, showed up with her mother, Ashanti Wright.
Scott, an advocate for cancer support, first shopped at Shine for compression bras after her breast cancer diagnosis in 2013. Earlier this year, she returned, reconnecting with a Shine employee who told her about Coils to Locs. The timing couldn’t have been better: Scott mentioned that she was helping her mother, who had also been diagnosed with breast cancer, look for a wig. “When you lose your hair, it’s so traumatic,” says Scott, 57. “Not only do you go through the trauma of losing your hair, but then it’s traumatic not being able to find the right wig.”
Wright, 78, was diagnosed with breast cancer last year. Her hair was already thinning from aging and stress, but chemotherapy caused what she had left to fall out. At Shine, she tried on several of the Coils to Locs styles and pronounced them “very authentic.” She especially appreciated one wig that blended platinum gray with darker strands. “Anyone working to get better quality and better styles to Black women, it’s a blessing,” says Wright, who is a reverend and a retired nurse.
Hair is central to the identity of many Black women, who feel that ethnic hairstyles celebrate and reflect Black culture. For years, Black women felt pressure to straighten their hair in order to appear more socially acceptable. “Black women, in order to find a job after slavery, had to look ‘presentable,’” says Dianne Austin, CEO and co-founder of Coils to Locs. “In order to provide for your family, you had to straighten your hair if you wanted someone to hire you.”
More recently, the trend toward natural hair—embracing the kinks, coils and tight textures—has gained popularity. Still, years of straightening their hair or pursuing traditional styles involving tight braids has resulted in many Black women experiencing hair loss, making the search for a wig not the exclusive domain of people with cancer.
Coils to Locs came about as a result of Austin’s experience losing her hair from chemotherapy for breast cancer. Austin looked for wigs that would be reimbursable by her health insurance provider but came up empty. “None of them looked like my hair,” says Austin, whose hair is naturally coily. “Instead of complaining, I decided I would do something about it.”
She launched Coils to Locs in 2019 from her hometown of Boston to sell wigs to hospitals and affiliates, providing alternatives to women who are looking for wigs with highly textured hair. “I’ve heard from doctors, from cancer center retail store owners and from patient advocates that these wigs don’t exist. People will say, ‘I’ve been looking for years for this.’”
Shine is stocking four of the ten styles that Coils to Locs offers but may opt to buy more depending upon customer demand. “We are retailers at heart,” says Jacobsen. “We like to get people things they want and that will make them feel good about themselves and best support their treatment experience.”