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Published on November 03, 2016

smiling woman with auburn hair

Why Hair Matters During Chemotherapy

Imagine looking in the mirror one morning only to see a stranger staring back at you - a stranger with no hair and no eyebrows.

This is exactly what many women experience when they need chemotherapy to treat cancer. Hair loss is a common and also temporary side effect of the powerful drugs that kill cancer cells.

"Being a cancer survivor myself, I know it's devastating to lose your hair. As women, our hair is central to our identity," said Del Lomheim, Avera Cancer Institute wig and beauty consultant.

Lomheim's work is a true calling. "I knew I wanted to be a hair stylist from time was 9 years old, and it's been 46 years since I got my license." She's been a wig expert for nearly 30 years, and understands what women face first hand, as she lost her own hair in 2009 due to chemotherapy to treat endometrial cancer.

It's all about self-confidence

A wig is not about vanity or glamour. it's about having the self-confidence to be out in public - going to church, working or spending time with friends and family.

Thanks to the Avera Race Against Breast Cancer, any female cancer patient in Sioux Falls who will lose her hair due to chemotherapy can get a free wig at the Avera Cancer Institute. The free wigs are also offered to women treated at Avera sites outside of Sioux Falls.

It's best for Lomheim to first see a patient before she loses her hair, so she can get a sense for her favorite hair color and style. Lomheim has wigs of 50 different styles. Once a woman chooses a style, her wig can be ordered in the color of her choice from among varied shades of blonde, brunette, auburn or silver.

When the new wig comes in, the woman comes back to see Lomheim, who teaches her how to put the wig on, wash it and care for it. She also shares a few warnings that people might not realize, for example, don't get too close to the oven, stovetop or dishwasher steam as the heat can ruin the wig.

When Lomheim helps women try on their new wig for the first time, she keeps them turned away from the mirror until after it's on and combed. Then comes her favorite moment. "My biggest satisfaction is when I turn them toward the mirror and they smile."

Karla's Story

Karla Tuttle of Arlington, S.D., has been through it twice. She was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000 and received a wig about nine years ago, and then recently had a recurrence of cancer and got a second wig.

She agreed that the top benefit is self-confidence. "It makes you feel more comfortable being out and around people," said Tuttle, who enjoys following college sports, golfing and spending time with her grandchildren. "I'm not ready to give up my activities and just stay in the house."

Tuttle has four grandsons - the youngest of whom, at age 2, doesn't remember when she had cancer before. "I want my youngest grandson to be able to recognize Grandma," Tuttle said.

Women might want to have different "looks" throughout their treatment, so they can buy additional wigs at half price. Lomheim also teaches the American Cancer Society's Look Good Fell Better program in which women learn how to use makeup to its full potential to improve their appearance during cancer treatment. "We teach women how to make their appearance as close to it was as possible before their cancer diagnosis," she said. "We want women to be able to go out and do their normal activities without feeling self-conscious."

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