stylish hair, volunteers who care

When you hear you have cancer, your whole world turns upside down,” says Marcia Cohen. Cohen’s world flipped in 2012 when she was prompted to visit her doctor after watching a Dr. Oz show on ovarian cancer. A medical checkup revealed she had stage three ovarian cancer and needed a hysterectomy and chemotherapy.

“The worst part was knowing I was going to lose my hair, that it would be coming out in clumps,” says Cohen, former principal of Linden School in Pittsburgh. So she bought an expensive wig, which buoyed her spirits and relieved some of her stress about chemo.

Now cancer free, Cohen is a regular volunteer at St. Clair Hospital’s wig salon. The salon was started in April 2013 by Director of Volunteers Georgianne Williams at the suggestion of an oncology nurse and since has provided more than 150 free wigs to women who are losing their hair as the result of undergoing chemotherapy. The program is funded by the American Cancer Society and the Bonny Diver Hair Peace charities.

St. Clair’s free wig program is one of this year’s Jefferson Award winners in the annual competition honoring outstanding public service that is sponsored by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Highmark and BNY Mellon. The wig program has been featured in the Post-Gazette and will receive the bronze Jefferson Medallion at a reception at Heinz Field in April. Eight finalists will be chosen from among the 40-plus Pittsburgh winners, and one group or individual will represent Western Pennsylvania in the National Jefferson Awards.

Jefferson Award winning program.
St. Clair Hospital’s wig program earned a Jefferson Award.

Most insurance companies don’t cover wigs, which can cost as much as $1,000. Yet for many women, being able to wear a wig in public until their own hair grows back helps them deal with chemo. The St. Clair salon, located in the cancer resource center, has wigs in various styles, colors and lengths. They are available to any woman living with cancer in the Pittsburgh area, no matter where she is undergoing treatment.

The free wig program wasn’t available when Cohen was going through chemo, so when the salon opened, she became a devoted volunteer. “Ladies come in pretty down and depressed,” she says. “It is really good for [patients] to see someone who survived.”

“Marcia is an inspiration,” says Williams. “She and [volunteer] Sue Glinka are invaluable.” Williams coordinates the program with the help of office assistant Sharon Stander. The four women do all the fittings—in the salon or even in women’s hospital beds.

“This is a very meaningful endeavor for me,” Williams continues. “The women come in as strangers and leave as friends, with optimism.”

She recalls a 32-year-old single professional woman who was worried about returning to work. “She showed me a picture of herself with long, black hair. We found her a human hair wig, and she looked beautiful.

“I had a young bride in her 30s,” she continues, “and the most touching thing was that I put this wig on that made her look just like her wedding day. Her husband told her, ‘You look more beautiful today than when I married you.’”

In addition to providing free wigs, the volunteers offer the women turbans, makeup kits and tips that can help them in their recovery. They also promote the hospital’s support groups.

Williams admits that the work can be emotionally draining: “We sometimes even go into the prayer room and pray with them. We’ve seen it all. We’ve shed tears. We’ve lost some people,” she explains.

On the upside, many survivors keep in touch, thankful for the help they received as they battled the disease. “I tell them, ‘You don’t have to be grateful,’” says Williams. “It’s just a small thing, but it makes people happy.”

Patients do not need to have insurance or a doctor’s referral. The American Cancer Society makes all the arrangements with St. Clair. For information or to set up an appointment call the 24-hour hotline, 1-800-227-2345.

Photography by Julie O’Hara