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A confidence boost for women who lose their hair to cancer: A free wig and stylist

Nancy Lin tries on a wig during an EBeauty wig fitting event for cancer patients at Shady Grove Adventist Aquilino Cancer Center in Rockville on Tuesday. The wig charity provides donated and refurbished wigs to cancer patients. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)
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Nicole Johnson looked at her reflection in a mirror, examining the ginger-colored bob cut framing her face. Her hair is normally brownish, but she was trying on a wig in a fresh color. She was expecting to lose her hair soon.

“It’s cute,” said Johnson, 44, who has breast cancer and started chemotherapy last week.

Johnson, who lives in Laurel, Md., was one of about a dozen women at a wig-fitting session at the Shady Grove Adventist Aquilino Cancer Center in Rockville, Md., on Tuesday. The program, run by D.C.-based EBeauty, provides free wigs and styling for women facing hair loss.

“If I’m going to lose it anyway, I may as well get a new color,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to find the positive.”

EBeauty helps support women across the country going through hair loss, often one of the more difficult aspects of dealing with cancer treatments. Wigs made from human hair are expensive, costing anywhere from $700 to $7,000. EBeauty collects used wigs from women who no longer need them, refurbishes them and then gives them to patients who can use them.

EBeauty has distributed more than 55,000 wigs since the nonprofit began in 2011. The group’s president, D.C. native Carolyn Keller, came up with the idea a decade ago when two of her sisters-in-law were diagnosed with breast cancer — and she had survived her own battle with the disease.

Keller — who is 60 and was 42 when she got her diagnosis — survived two bouts of breast cancer, one in 2002 and one in 2004. She had two expensive wigs that she purchased.

When her sister-in-law Laura Jirsa was diagnosed in 2011, Keller gave Jirsa one of her wigs because it was so costly to buy one. Insurance plans often cover a fraction of the cost, if they reimburse at all.

“She was so worried about the cost of it,” Keller said. “I said, ‘Listen, Laura, one day you’ll pass it on to somebody who needs it.’”

Jirsa, of Greensboro, N.C., said the wig was a godsend.

“When you’re going through cancer treatment, you have all the co-pays and the stress,” said Jirsa, 56. She later joined EBeauty as chief operating officer.

“It just makes all the difference in the world,” she said. “You can feel terrible on the inside, and still look like yourself on the outside.”

Keller’s other sister-in-law, Karen Callahan, was diagnosed with breast cancer nine months after Jirsa. It seemed breast cancer was everywhere; about 1 in 8 women in the United States will develop the disease. Knowing the need, Keller decided to transform the beauty company she founded.

With a background in real estate, Keller started EBeauty in the late ’90s as an online marketplace where women could buy beauty products from stores. She refocused EBeauty into a nonprofit that gathers and distributes wigs for free. She spread the word through hospitals and the American Cancer Society.

Donors send the wigs to EBeauty, where volunteers select the highest-quality ones and then pass them along to stylists-in-training at the Paul Mitchell Schools beauty academy. There, the wigs are cleaned and trainees learn how to style them. The stylists then write notes — with messages such as “Let your dreams be bigger than your fears” and “You’ve got this” — and pack the wig and note in a sealed bag. EBeauty then distributes the wigs to hospitals and to individuals in treatment who request one.

When the wig project began, EBeauty worked with Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington and dropped the wigs off there. Now, many hospitals in the region partner with EBeauty, Keller said, and the organization sends wigs to hospitals and individual patients around the country and sometimes internationally. EBeauty gets, on average, 2,000 to 3,000 wigs a month.

“We have a very simple business model: It’s wigs in and wigs out,” Keller said.

Having a stylish wig with real-looking hair provides a much-needed confidence boost to many women, said Keller, who recalls feeling disheartened when her hair started falling out during chemotherapy.

“It helps you not feel so distraught over what’s happening to your body at the time,” she said.

She’s a medical student. Her mom is a custodian at the hospital where she trained.

“When you are facing medical bills, it’s difficult to even think about how you’re putting food on the table,” Keller said. EBeauty, she said, is “the circle of giving.”

Keller said operations slowed and volunteers decreased during the coronavirus pandemic. But now, working with a handful of volunteers things are slowly going back to normal.

Michele Petersen, of McLean, Va., underwent a double mastectomy in January, then needed chemotherapy for her breast cancer that had metastasized into her lymph nodes.

Her hair became very dry and brittle but didn’t fall out. She received two wigs from EBeauty.

“The wig was really my savior and made it easy for me to continue on with normal life,” said Petersen, 63. She plans to donate them back now that her hair is growing in again.

At the wig-fitting event in Rockville on Tuesday, stylist volunteers from the Frederick and Annapolis locations of The Temple: A Paul Mitchell Partner School helped women select and coif their wigs.

Nancy Lin, 46, of Boyds, Md., was deciding between a light blond or dark blond hue — both of which, the stylists agreed, complemented her blue eyes. Lin, a biomedical engineer battling breast cancer, starts chemotherapy next week. She said coming to the event helped her feel more at ease with wearing a wig. Plus, she enjoyed the pampering aspect of it.

“It’s relaxing, and it’s kind of fun,” she said while trying on the wigs. “It helps you not think about losing your hair.”

“I haven’t worn a wig yet,” Lin added. “Maybe once I start wearing it, it won’t be so fun.”

Most wigs come in standard hair colors such as brown, blond, red, black and gray. But there are also some bold shades for people who feel daring. Paula Neal happily accepted a three-toned wig — with dark roots, a grayish middle and purple ends — that matched the purple in her hair she had begun to lose.

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“I’m just so happy that I got to have my purple,” said Neal, 38, who also got a dark brown wig at the fitting event, for days she’s feeling more subdued.

The Gaithersburg, Md., resident and mother of five is battling metastatic breast cancer, and her eyes tear up when she talks about it.

“It’s amazing,” Neal said about EBeauty’s wig program. “Worrying about hair loss and how you look … it’s hard.”

That’s exactly why Keller started the program.

“It’s the circle of giving,” she said.

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