October 31, 2018

Think pink: A new outlook on cancer

At Interstate Medical Office Central in Portland, Oregon, the gift boutique is lifting spirits with free wigs that fill a need for hundreds of cancer patients.

Sundi Anonby hadn't even started chemotherapy when she first visited Kaiser Permanente's gift boutique, which offers members and non-members free wigs, comfort items and support before, during and after their cancer diagnosis.

"I wanted to get a wig before I lost my hair," said Sundi, 42, an accounts payable specialist at a construction company. She saw a wig as a way to retain a sense of normalcy, something she sorely desired after receiving her breast cancer diagnosis.

The mother of two travels from her home in Longview, Washington, to Portland for her chemotherapy treatments. She made a special trip to check out the gift boutique, which is open every Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Kaiser Permanente Northwest’s Interstate Medical Office Central.

The gift boutique looks like a small store, with private areas for trying on wigs. In addition to new wigs made of either natural or synthetic hair, the shop also offers handmade hats, pillows, jewelry, journals, and various comfort items — all for free.

"The fact that you don't have to pay is so nice," Sundi said. "You can try on as many wigs as you like. The volunteers who work there are absolutely wonderful."

Filling an unmet need

Oncology nurse Rhonda Wirth and nurse navigator Debbra Larson created the gift boutique to fill an unmet need.

"It was a soapbox of mine, and I never let go of it," Rhonda said. "I was sending patients to other healthcare organizations, or giving them names and numbers for stores where wigs can be anywhere from $150 all the way up to $900."

She secured space and partnered with the American Cancer Society. The gift boutique opened in October 2016.

"When you're on chemotherapy for cancer, you're not working. You're ill. You're financially impacted and can't spend $500 on a wig," Rhonda said.

The boutique sees 30 to 50 visitors each Friday and gives away 15 to 20 wigs a month, Wirth said.

"People, especially around the holidays with family events, want to look nice," Rhonda said. "When a wig fits, it fits. You see a complete change in their faces when they find a wig they like."

For Sundi, that turned out to be a bright pink bob. She's fair-skinned, and had trouble finding a blonde wig to match her natural coloring. She tried a dark wig, but didn't end up wearing it. Pink turned out to be her color.

"The whole experience of breast cancer has been so crazy. I thought pink was a little different and fun," Sundi said.

The gift boutique also connected her with the Look Good Feel Better program offered through the American Cancer Society.

"I learned how to make it look like I have eyebrows, how to make my eyelashes look thicker. Plus you get to be around other people like you," Sundi said.

She's looking forward to wrapping up her cancer treatment with surgery in December. Sundi wanted to give back, so she crocheted beanies and donated them to the gift boutique's offerings.

These sorts of donations send a clear message that Wirth was right.

"It's obvious that this is meeting a need. We didn't even realize how big it was," Rhonda said. "Cancer takes so much away. It's about giving back to patients some of what they've lost."

Learn more about Kaiser Permanente Northwest’s commitment to quality cancer care at kp.org/cancer/northwest.