The Power of Hair: Lost and Found


Wigs can empower, transform, and repair (Photo: Getty)

Decades ago, when my 30-year-old sister was rushed to the hospital with what turned out to be a brain tumor the size of an orange, my world tilted and swirled like melting crayons. “If I don’t make it, will you help raise my kids?” she asked me.  She was clear-eyed and somber on the eve of her surgery, but these were lines from a made-for-TV movie.  I nodded dumbly, wondering how we had gotten here. My sister was a young, vital woman. We knew she’d been feeling exhausted and dizzy lately, but she had two colicky kids under three. Who wouldn’t be dead on their feet?

The phone call from her husband with the news had been the slap of an open palm. My brother-in-law’s take-charge attitude had gotten her to a stellar hospital and into the hands of the best surgeon, but he was terrified inside. We all were.


Cards from hair donors (Photo: Carolyn Taylor)

I’d flown cross-country with our newborn son to New York.  Nursing and sleep deprived, I tried to force her diagnosis down my throat to digest.  Nancy reached back to palpate the large shaved patch on her head, touching it uncertainly. “Maybe I’ll go for a dreadlock wig if I have to do chemo,” she jousted at fear with her signature gallows humor.  We hugged, reaching for normal, as I said goodnight before the early morning operation.

When the doctor told us they had gotten it all, when my sister moved beyond the first year and then five and now to the present where the rest of us barely give it a thought, the experience receded into the background the way happy endings can.

But when a close friend recently told me her tumor had returned, I was reminded again how life loops back on itself. Cancer doesn’t take a break during the months outside October, when the world is beribboned in pink. Life’s stealthy heartbreaks and rock-your-world tragedies lie in wait for us, picking the innocuous moments to pounce. “I’m going to fight like hell,” my friend says, reaching to brush aside her bangs. “But I honestly can’t bear the thought of losing my hair again.” I nod sympathetically, blinking back tears.

Hair is a woman’s common denominator. It cinches us together in the public restroom mirror as we primp and adjust. One bad haircut can send us into a tailspin for days, even though we know it will grow back.  Straight wants curls, curly always dreamed of straight. We complain about the humidity or kvetch over our visible roots; these small universal moments can connect women across continents like sign language. And when hair goes because of sickness, it can have a profound impact.


The wig closet. From left Carolyn Taylor, Sandy Samberg, Tiffany O’Toole (Photo: Carolyn Taylor)

Recently, my friend Sandy Samberg asked if I wanted to see the wig closet at her house. She has long been involved in raising awareness and money to fight cancer. She has developed creative ways to meet unmet needs for women around the world who have lost their hair from illness.

“Holy Moly,” I said, as she opened the door to the headquarters for the charitable ventures, The Wig Exchange and Wigs Without Borders. Containers were scattered around the room with a hidden methodology, each of them filled with hair in varying colors, lengths and styles. The donated and cleaned wigs hung in zip- locks on racks, marked by color and type. There were boxes bound for Africa and Asia, far-flung places where women faced chemo—without the costly luxury of replacement hair.

She pointed out a box of wigs that had just arrived; donations from family members and survivors determined to restore beauty and dignity to another woman battling a disease intent on stripping it away. Each wig was a tiny piece of body armor, waiting to be cleaned or repurposed by a team of volunteers, several of them cancer survivors themselves. Then shared with the next warrior.

“You’re in the beauty business,” I said, marveling at the sheer brilliance of a wig bank and touched by the generosity of so many strangers in the wake of their own triumph or loss.  It was impossible not to look at each wig with reverence, to imagine the journey of the grandmother, mother, daughter or sister who had worn it and then contemplate the outcome of their long alligator wrestle with cancer.

Sometimes, just when you are feeling sorry for yourself, shuffling through your own little basket of blues, the gift of perspective whomps you in the solar plexus, sucking the air from your lungs. We need to listen for these moments, attuned to spot them on a planet that seems increasingly tone deaf to good will, tolerance and kindness to strangers.


Sandra Caruso goes through the wig closet, one by one with Susan Marynowski, (Photo: Carolyn Taylor)

Standing in Samberg’s wig closet did just that for me. It reminded me that good deeds often start with an individual and then bleed out into the world. They are fostered by people in communities who are empathetic, outraged or just determined enough to help, in whatever form that may take – their money, time, or even their hair.

Follicle by follicle, strand by strand, these wigs were created to beautify and transform. Repurposed and passed on, they will carry it forward to another woman, in another community, or perhaps on another continent. Every journey to help someone heal does something to repair us inside, too. I can already see that this work to beautify the outside is a reflection of the internal beauty of all the women who have raised their hands and chosen to help.


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