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The Kindest Cut of All

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— April 15, 2019

The Kindest Cut of All

  • Hair loss is an often overlooked issue in children who suffer from cancer. People from all around the world have made efforts to help in their own way- literally.
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When Madonna Coffman was a child, she lost all her hair as a result of alopecia, a disease that causes the body’s immune system to attack the hair follicles. Unlike many people with alopecia, she recovered over the course of nine years.

When her daughter also developed alopecia, Madonna was inspired to take action. She founded Locks of Love, a non-profit organization that accepts hair from people who grow out their hair and then cut it off to be used in custom-made hairpieces given, free of charge, to children who have lost their hair.

“People say, ‘It’s only hair,’” observes Coffman. “But one of the biggest industries in the US is hair replacement, and those are adults. If adults don’t have the tools to deal with losing hair, imagine what it’s like to be a child in that situation.”

In that situation.” However, that doesn’t mean adults with medically induced hair loss haven’t until quite recently, appreciated the kindness of others. Yvette Diaz, an administrative assistant at NaturesPlus, has donated hair three times to Pantene’s Beautiful Lengths program, which made wigs for adults who lost their hair after undergoing chemotherapy.

“I always had really straight hair, and I have a lot of it, so I figured it would be a good cause to grow it out and chop it off,” Diaz says. “It’s just hair to me. To other people, it’s more than that. I don’t miss it, knowing it’s helping someone who is not able to grow their own hair.” Pantene, a shampoo manufacturer, has donated thousands of natural-hair wigs to women living with cancer. However, the company discontinued the program because synthetic-hair technology has vastly improved. Now that synthetic wigs have more of a “real-hair” feel—making them lighter, cooler to wear and easier to style— the demand for natural-hair wigs has dropped.

For children, however, natural hair is still preferred for making prosthetics that are molded to the recipient’s head and can be worn while the child plays sports and even swims—with no danger of falling off.

According to Wigs for Kids, another group that makes hair replacements for children, the process begins with donations of ponytails, which must be at least 12 inches long and not bleached, permed or color-treated. (Locks of Love, which does take permed or dyed hair, requires ponytails that are 10 inches long.) Gray hair is accepted, although it is sold to the manufacturer for use in adult wigs, offsetting the cost of producing the custom hairpieces.

When a child’s family requests a hairpiece, the child selects a hair color, length, and style (curly, wavy, straight), and a resin mold is made of the youngster’s head; the mold is scanned to create a replica of the skull with all its individual bumps and shallows. A 3D printer sets down layers of biomedical polymer to simulate the scalp with a breathable, heat-resistant membrane.

Ten to 12 ponytails of the proper color and style are combed and combined. Then the hairs are inserted by hand, one at a time, into the polymer base, using a pointed tool. The entire manufacturing process can take up to four months, so children are given a standard wig to wear in the meantime. (Because the hairpieces are donated to the recipients, both Locks of Love and Wigs for Kids operate on financial donations.) But ordinary wigs do not always work for children, as Raveena Petam, who works in the quality control department at NaturesPlus, has learned. She has a cousin whose hair fell out in elementary school. “Growing up, she was made fun of,” Petam says. “She started wearing wigs, but for a child, a wig looks fake. Kids would pull it off her head. We all had long hair, so she felt sad about looking like this.”

When Petam’s 15-year-old daughter, Anika, decided to cut her waist-length hair one hot summer, she donated her ponytails to Wigs for Kids. “I’m of Indian descent,” says Petam, “and we love the beauty of a woman’s hair. But I also didn’t want her hair to go to waste.” She later cut and donated her own long hair. Her coworker Samantha Gilson, a legal assistant, enjoys her hair until it reaches a certain length, when “it becomes a nuisance. But I thought I might as well make use of all that hair since I had the minimum required amount for donation. I’m sure I’ll do it again.” Hair grows, on the average, a half-inch per month, so a 12-inch ponytail takes two years to grow. Mary Gibbons, wife of Jim, the president of NaturesPlus, says her daughter Maranda first donated her abundant hair to Locks of Love at the age of 10. Seven years later, Mary was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I decided I wanted to give back before I actually lost my hair,” she recalls. “That way I was more in control. If I was going to lose my hair, I wasn’t going to waste it.” Her niece insisted on cutting her own hair as well, in solidarity.

Maranda, then a senior in high school, surprised her mother a week later by going by herself to donate her hair, long and thick enough to form two ponytails. “She did it for me, to help someone,” says Gibbons. “When you’re a teenager and a bit vain, that’s not so easy to do. I was blown away.” When Gibbons, who is now cancer-free, bought a wig, she had to have a natural-hair model because she cooks a lot, and synthetics are highly flammable. She only wore it a few times, explaining, “It didn’t feel like me. I wore a knitted hat instead.” For children, however, lack of hair can be devastating. As Coffman notes, “Kids will ask, ‘Why don’t you have hair? Do you have cancer?’ But when kids get their prosthetic, they’re so resilient, they get right back in the game. It changes their attitude and outlook. It changes the kind of adults they’re going to become.”

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