Breast cancer survivor gives back with wigs

Cynthia Theberge keenly remembers how the loss of her hair, lashes and eyebrows affected her on a daily basis. The day she shaved her head, she told her husband to take their two sons out so she can have “a moment to recover” before they came back.

Cynthia Theberge keenly remembers how the loss of her hair, lashes and eyebrows affected her on a daily basis.

The day she shaved her head, she told her husband to take their two sons out so she can have “a moment to recover” before they came back, said the 43-year old mother. When her family returned, she was really nervous. Her sons, who were six and eight at the time, ran up to her.

“Wow mommy, you look beautiful,” her then six-year old said, hugging her. He paused and added, “You don’t look good.

“But you still look beautiful.”

Theberge choked up recalling the moment. “That was kind of what helped me through a lot of it – was knowing that no matter what, he still saw me the same way,” she said.

Such memories during her fight against cancer are what led her to creating a Yukon wig bank. The breast cancer survivor is trying to minimize the pain for other women by lending them wigs for free. Currently no such service exists in Whitehorse or the rest of the territory.

Other moments were not as pleasant as Theberge’s sons embracing her new look. She also remembers when strangers would approach her.

“There’s no, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ It’s always, ‘Hey … is everything OK?

“You don’t always want to have those conversations at the superstore or at the dentist. You just want to be,” she said.

It may sound “silly,” but the process of losing her hair was just as traumatic as being diagnosed with cancer, said Theberge. Her hair loss was a dead giveaway

“It makes you feel very exposed,” she said. “It was one of the hardest things that I had to come to terms with.”

The diagnosis in May 2012 also came at a pivotal time in Theberge’s life, when she decided to quit her stable job as a sales representative for NorthwesTel to pursue a career change as a social worker.

It was also the second time Theberge was diagnosed with cancer. The first time was for a lung carcinoid in 2008, which doctors found “by fluke,” she said.

She and her husband “planned for a tight year,” but her getting sick was not part of the calculation, she said.

Theberge was supposed to complete her practicum in September to December 2012. After her last chemotherapy in mid-December, she bounced right back to her studies in January and obtained her degree last month.

Buying a wig became all the more of a commitment as a student, as her husband’s health insurance only covered a portion of the cost. Prices for synthetic wigs “can be several hundred dollars or you can go into the thousands if you buy human-hair wigs,” she said.

Theberge wanted a wig all the more during special occasions, such as when her brother got married last summer. All she wanted was to blend in.

She ended up borrowing a friend’s wig but still felt unsatisfied with it. “If we had had a bank, I could’ve gone in and tried on a bunch of wigs and just maybe would have felt a little better on that day,” she said.

She realized she could do more for women diagnosed with cancer in the Yukon when she saw the wig and breast prosthesis bank in Vancouver. The Jean C. Barber Lodge, which provides affordable accommodations to patients from the Yukon who receive treatment in B.C., lends wigs to patients.

Theberge said she appreciated how accessible the wig bank was, as she was allowed to borrow the wig for as long as she wanted, free of charge, she said. “I just go in, I sign a book, I care for it while I have it and when I return it, it gets cleaned,” she added.

Theberge was also inspired by the “Look Good, Feel Better” workshop, delivered by the BC Canadian Cancer Agency, in which an esthetician gave Theberge a free make-up kit and showed her how to draw natural-looking eyebrows and eyelashes.

“It’s about capturing that moment when you glimpse yourself in the mirror because I felt so outside of myself, she said. “I still felt different, but I looked a little bit more like what I remembered,” she added.

Theberge actually didn’t use many wigs herself during her cancer treatment. She collected hats instead, which she preferred because her scalp was sensitive from radiation. She picked up around 10 of them from a store that sold hats designed for people living with cancer. The hats came with a breathable mesh lining.

Now that her hair is growing back, she no longer wants to wear those hats – even if she at times wants to cover up her cropped hair, which she isn’t used to. It’s the first time since high school she had short hair.

“(They) make me go back to a place that I’m ready to put in the distant past,” she said. “I’ve invested this money in these fantastic hats that are funky and fun and beautiful and they’re going to sit in my closet. Nothing will make me more happy than to share these hats with people who could enjoy them the way that I did when I was going through my treatment,” she said.

That is when she decided to put out an ad in local papers and social media seeking wig donations to start a Whitehorse wig bank. In a matter of three weeks, a handful of people volunteered to knit and crochet hats for her. She’s collected two hats and eight wigs, two of which were donated by a friend whose mother passed away from cancer.

She’s also received one breast prosthesis. “Anything we get that we cannot use, I will personally make sure it gets to a place where someone who can use it gets it – that much I can guarantee,” she said.

For now, Theberge said that she hopes to get a spot in the Whitehorse General Hospital for the wig bank, as she’s teamed up with the hospital’s cancer navigator, Mya Kondor.

If she doesn’t get a space, she will open her home up to women needing the headwear.

She will also launch a peer-facilitated group for women with breast cancer. The sessions will be every first Monday of the month at Copper Ridge Place, starting Aug.5.

Theberge said these acts are just her way of giving back to the Yukon community, as she feels indebted to people who helped her during her healing. Some even offered to cook for her family.

“I just hope we can help a few people feel better,” she said.

To make a wig, hat or scarf donation, Theberge can be reached at 668-2614 or yukonsupport@hotmail.com. Donations can also be dropped off to the cancer care navigator at the Whitehorse General Hospital.

Contact Krystle Alarcon at

krystlea@yukon-news.com

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