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A wig, a woman, and a duel with cancer: Mary's story

When Mary Letson was diagnosed with cancer five years ago, she prepared herself for the inevitable hair loss from chemotherapy by buying a wig. Now she's ready to say goodbye to the wig (she's already parted ways with the cancer).

Hair is a big deal. Flip open any fashion magazine or stand amidst the acres of hair-care products in any given drugstore and the reality of our obsessions drive home in spades. When you are sick and lose your hair, the focus is painfully acute simply because you don’t have any. 

Five years ago, when I knew baldness was coming down the pipe for me in the first three weeks of a six-month course of chemotherapy treatment, I read through the relevant chapter in my complimentary copy of The Intelligent Patient Guide to Breast Cancer. This handbook was my bible, the breast cancer (and less joyful) equivalent of What to Expect When You Are Expecting

I avoided the chemo section of the book until the treatment schedule was confirmed after surgery. Then I read it carefully and followed their advice. It was oh so helpful. The authors recommended a wig purchase in advance of actually needing it. While I was still feeling well. So off I went with my dear friend Sue Nicholson to Eva & Co Wigs conveniently located in “Cancerland” just steps away from the B.C. Cancer Agency in Vancouver Location, location, location.

The shop was quiet, with several kind clerks who helped me sort out what I liked and what looked best, all in a private fitting room. I may have cried a little. The privacy was appreciated. 

I found a blonde, bobbed wig that, once on my head, made me feel beautiful. Perky. Well. Sold. The price tag was $500 – a veritable bargain compared to the other wigs with real hair starting at $1,200. Husband Cam said, “Buy it, whatever you like. Whatever you need, buy it.”

My guide book also recommended shaving my head before the hair fell out to avoid the nasty shock of handfuls coming out in your hand. Like a bad dream, the ultimate definition of a bad hair day. So the week before I expected it to fall out, Cam shaved my head. It was a bizarre initial ritual to the whole treatment adventure that firmly placed me in the cancer patient arena. There was no turning back, no maybes, negotiating or pretending.

Here we go. A week later the remaining stubble on my skull fell like dirt into the white porcelain sink as I rubbed my skull dry after a shower. Along with my eyebrows and eyelashes. I felt like a chicken.

This all said, I could don my beautiful wig, draw in some brows, apply a little eyeliner and anyone who didn’t know me was unaware of my illness. Brilliant. The hair was so good in fact that I had total strangers ask me who did my hair. Marvellous.

Five years later I am just three months away from graduating with cancer-free honours with my last oncologist appointment in October 2018. This happy ending coincides with SwimBowen on July 21, an annual swim event supporting Bowen Islanders enduring cancer treatment. 

The timing is serendipitous in so many ways. I hadn’t been ready to give away my beautiful wig until now. Now is the perfect time. Said wig will be auctioned off by (soon to be retiring) United Church minister Shelagh Mackinnon with the suggestion that the winning bidder donate the wig to Bowen Island’s Caring Circle. Amen!

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