While undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, Carolyn Malone turned to a place where she found the time to laugh, cry and, most importantly, heal.
The Image Boutique at Georgia Health Sciences University’s Cancer Center was a place for Malone to regain parts of her outer image that were lost during her bout with cancer.
Malone, now 45, lost her hair during chemotherapy, and reconstructive surgery after a June 2010 double mastectomy caused severe complications. Tissue expanders placed in her breasts became infected, fluid built up inside her and the expanders were removed.
Malone, whose three sisters also battled breast cancer, started looking like herself again with a new wig and post-mastectomy prosthetics.
Certified mastectomy and wig fitter Sherry Brooks helps several hundred women a year find a new look during chemotherapy for several types of cancer.
In 2011, 1,588 cancer patients, including 170 with breast cancer, were seen at the boutique.
Many women say a fitting at the GHSU boutique,
managed by Brooks, helps them release pent-up emotions from the cancer battle.
“When I came to Sherry, I could laugh about it. I could talk about it,” Malone said. “Then I started feeling whole again.”
Malone’s doctor wrote her a prescription for the wig and prosthetics. Her hair has started growing back, but she continues wearing the prosthetics 24 hours a day, not even walking to the mailbox without them, she said with a big laugh.
This month, she consulted with Brooks about what options will be available when the prosthetics, which cost more than $300, need replacing in about a year.
Patients usually meet with Brooks before their surgery or hair loss. She listens to their story and learns about their activity level and medical needs to make the right fit. Often, she’s a friend to cry and laugh with.
“What if that was my mother walking through the door? What if that was my sister, my aunt, my cousin? How would I want them to be treated?” she said. “I want them to have fun in there, forget about their troubles for a while and make them feel good about themselves.”
Most insurance plans cover prosthetics and wigs, but for those who cannot afford the items, the American Cancer Society’s Augusta chapter offers free services to about 100 women a year.
“Wigs are very expensive, from $200 to $500. Sometimes many patients can’t afford to get that,” said Vivian Williams, an administrative assistant at the society’s Augusta office.
Williams sees many women walk through the door who are uninsured or underinsured. The wigs, undergarments and prosthetics are donated to the office.
Diane Moore, a certified fitter at Cat’s Pajamas in University Hospital, began fitting women with wigs 17 years ago when she began wearing one herself. She helps about 50 patients a month, about 80 percent of whom are being treated for breast cancer.
“We want them to look as natural and normal as possible after they’ve had their surgery and are going through their recovery,” she said.
Moore can trim and style wigs, or consult with patients about the medical necessity of post-mastectomy prosthetics. Without prosthetics, women can experience shoulder and skeletal problems from an uneven weight distribution, she said.
“This is what I think the Lord has been preparing me for all my life,” she said. “To be part of their lives and a piece of helping them to restore an image of themselves.”