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Appearance Room wigs, caps help rejuvenate cancer patients’ self-esteem

Published on Monday, October 2, 2017

By: Cynthia Wall

NOTE: This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of CONSULT, UMMC's monthly electronic newsletter. To have CONSULT, and more stories like this, delivered directly to your inbox, click here to subscribe.

Chemotherapy sapped his wife’s strength, self-esteem and confidence, said Richard Cupit of Natchez.
An item as simple as a wig is helping her recover.

“I love it,” Joyce Cupit said recently. “It’s so easy to wear and it is so comfortable.”

Joyce, a breast cancer patient at the University of Mississippi Medical Center Cancer Institute, followed her nurse’s instructions to “see Janice.”

The nurse? Nikki Simmons, a member of the CI Breast Cancer Interdisciplinary Team. And Janice? That’s Janice Johnson, manager of the CI Patient Resource Center, home to an “Appearance Room,” geared toward helping women and men find the confidence cancer stole.

“I’d never had a wig before,” Joyce said. “Nikki told me about it. She said to come here and Janice would help me.”

While she seldom wears it around the house, Joyce said she feels better with her new hair in public.

Richard and Joyce Cupit of Natchez say the wig she received has helped her feel more confident in public.
Richard and Joyce Cupit of Natchez say Joyce's new wig has helped her feel more confident in public.

“The first time I wore it to church everybody was telling me how good it looks and I got the big head,” she said.

Recently after Joyce had a chemo treatment, the Cupits stopped by the Resource Center. Richard stood quietly as Johnson fluffed the wig, combing curls into place and styling it.

“She was more confident after she got the wig,” Richard said. “She was timid about someone seeing her bald or with a cap. It boosted her self-esteem and confidence.”

Johnson said she never tires of seeing the transformation a little hair can make. Women may enter with heads down and eyes lowered, but leave laughing and greeting others in the waiting room.

The transformation can boost the entire family. Recently a young man escorted his mother – her head down, uttering monosyllabic answers – into the Appearance Room. He left to run an errand.

When he returned, his mother was wearing her wig, making eye contact and talking to the people nearby. His eyes widened and he quietly stepped aside, wiped his eyes before turning back and greeting his mother, smile for smile and laugh for laugh.

Johnson said those transformations are common. “It happens all the time,” she said.            

Almost every day, someone enquires about a wig, a scarf, a cap or a knit hat. All items are given free to UMMC Cancer Institute patients. In August, Johnson helped 15 patients select, try on and style wigs.

She tries to keep at least one wig for each woman who needs one. Women who lose their hair to chemotherapy or radiation therapy are her usual clients. Men usually ask for caps or, in winter, more masculine-colored knit hats.

“We do need men’s caps too,” she said. “If someone makes them in camouflage I always save them for the guys.”

“It is not clear that having a wig will add any time to whatever we as oncologists can do for a patient,” said Dr. John Ruckdeschel, professor of medicine and UMMC Cancer Institute director. “It makes all of the time they have, be it months or years, fuller and more blessed, enhancing the day-to-day interactions that make life worth living.”

All items are donated or purchased with funds raised by UMMC Cancer Institute staff. Many come from people who have seen cancer ravage a family member.

Ruth Cummins, UMMC assistant director for media relations, seated, and her siblings donated their mother's wigs and many stands to the Patient Resource Center. Resource Center manager Janice Johnson helped set them up.

Ruth Cummins, seated, UMMC assistant director for media
relations, and Janice Johnson, Resource Center manager, peruse the wigs Cummins and her siblings donated from their
mother's collection.

That was the case for Ruth Cummins, a member of the UMMC Public Affairs staff. She and her siblings donated 10 wigs after her mother, Sonia Riffle Ingram, died of liver cancer last December.

“Our mom always loved wigs. She didn’t wear them but she loved to collect them,” Cummins said. “Her disease progressed so quickly she never lost her hair, but we knew if she had, her wigs would have been there for her.

“We believed that Mom would have loved for women with cancer who lost their hair to enjoy her wigs. She would have been tickled to see women like her getting joy from her wigs.”

The wigs are life-changers for many women, but a few choose to swagger the sleekness of a bald head.

“They’re just beautiful,” Johnson said.

For those who find familiarity in hair, she’s seeking donations. She’s arranged with a Jackson cosmetology school to clean and make minor repairs to gently used wigs. She accepts donations of new and gently used wigs, scarves, hats, caps and port pillows at the Cancer Institute clinics at the Jackson Medical Mall Thad Cochran Center.

For more information or to make a donation, email Johnson at jbjohnson@umc.edu.