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Strands of Strength funds free wigs for cancer patients in need

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As if a diagnosis of cancer isn’t devastating enough, the heartbreak when told “you may lose your hair” can be the rotten cherry on top.

“Some clients say the loss of their hair is the worst part,” said Nicole Gerdin, coordinator of the Eastern Iowa branch of Strands of Strength, a not-for-profit that provides free wigs for women who’ve lost their hair because of cancer treatment.

“It’s another hurdle,” she said. “You’re already not feeling well and then looking in the mirror, you see someone you might not recognize.” In an effort to create some normalcy for cancer patients, as well as ease the strain on their budgets from piling medical bills, Strands of Strength offers qualifying patients free wigs to “disguise hair loss, decrease feelings of vulnerability and provide greater self-esteem,” hopefully resulting in greater strength to “successfully battle the disease,” their mission statement reads.

Strands of Strength was established in 2011 in Des Moines, after founder Deb Pulver lost her hair from chemotherapy. With a wig that resembled her natural hair, she felt she had regained a sense of control in her life, despite being at the mercy of her breast cancer. After recovering, she founded Strands of Strength and has since provided more than 600 wigs to people across the state.

In November 2015, Strands of Strength expanded to Eastern Iowa under the direction of Gerdin, who shared a similar experience.

Just two weeks after learning she was pregnant with her fourth child five years ago, Gerdin was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer. Her treatment included a mastectomy and chemotherapy, which resulted in her losing her hair. However, she later gave birth to a healthy baby boy.

“I had the means to purchase a nice quality wig, so most people didn’t notice,” Gerdin said.

She recalled a time when she was in a store and a woman complimented her hair.

Gerdin admitted to her it was a wig and the woman became embarrassed and apologized, but Gerdin assured her it was the best compliment she could have received.

“You can’t control your treatment, but you can pick how you look and sometimes how you look effects how you feel,” Gerdin said. “Wigs have an empowering effect.”

But not all women have the means to buy a high-quality wig, she realized.

“That really effected me,” she said. “I recall thinking someday I really want to help.”

“Thousands of dollars of medical bills is very overwhelming,” said wig-recipient Jody Sloan of Marion. “To have someone give you such a great gift, it’s just amazing.”

After a breast cancer diagnosis and a double mastectomy in 2013, Sloan was told there was a 1 percent to 2 percent chance that her cancer would return. She didn’t think it would happen to her, but it did. “I guess somebody has to be the 1 or 2 percent,” she said.

In June, Sloan was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer and decided to undergo chemotherapy.

“At the thought of losing my hair, I just remembered thinking, I don’t think I’m a wig person,” she said. “I remember my husband was working from home and I went into his office and started crying because I knew I’d have to go through chemo and I know it’s not fun, and I’d lose my hair. ... I wasn’t prepared when my hair started coming out in handfuls.”

Cancer patients “have so much stress and fears already,” Gerdin said. “We want to take away that stress. We want clients to feel good even when they’re feeling low. ... We’re giving them every means to fight this disease and experience life in as normal way as they can.”

Sloan said “people treat you differently” when you wear a scarf or a hat. But with a wig, she said she feels “a little more glamorous.”

“It’s way cooler than my mousy brown hair. Maybe I’ll just keep my head shaved and wear this,” she said with a laugh.

“It’s just been a blessing to the whole family because it makes it a little less obvious that something is drastically wrong,” she added.

“You need that normalcy — times when people aren’t thinking about your cancer,” Gerdin said. “Sometimes you just don’t want the attention and a wig provides an opportunity for you to not disclose that you have cancer.”

Strands of Strength partners with health care providers, salons and hair stylists to identify qualifying clients and supply and style high quality synthetic wigs.

To qualify, patients must find an oncology professional who can confirm their medical and financial need for a Strands of Strength wig and give them a voucher. Then, clients take the voucher to a partnering salon and consult with a stylist to find a wig that fits their style.

In Eastern Iowa, three salons have partnered with the not-for-profit, including Advanced Hair Technologies, Jeffrey Scott Salon, both in Cedar Rapids and Skin Deep Salon and Spa in Coralville.

Health care partners include the Hall-Perrine Cancer Center in Cedar Rapids, Cancer Care of Iowa City, the Helen G. Nassif Community Cancer Center in Cedar Rapids and the University of Iowa Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center in Iowa City.

Each wig voucher is worth $300. Vouchers can be used toward wigs offered by participating salons and if the wig the client likes is more than $300, salons may provide the wig at their cost, Gerdin said.

“Unfortunately several hundred women in our area are going to experience this every year,” she said. “Hundreds of women times $300 really adds up.”

But the goal is to never limit the number of wigs it gives away, which is why Strands of Strength holds a yearly fundraiser.

This year’s fundraiser on Wednesday is sold out, however Strands of Strength committee members already are thinking of next year’s event and suggest that individuals and local businesses interested in donating items or that want to support the not-for-profit in other ways contact Gerdin at nicole@strandsofstrength.com or (319) 331-4080.

“All funds raised in our area stay in our area — every $300 that is donated goes directly to help the patient,” she said. “We know how influential a wig can be. It’s a great way to donate — know you’ve directly impacted someone.”

Despite her cancer’s return, Sloan remains upbeat, particularly with the help of her “movie star” wig.

“I may not be guaranteed tomorrow, but at least I can look good tomorrow if I get another day,” she said.

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