Hair with a heart: Students build wigs for clients with cancer, brain tumors

Many of us have had classes that have touched our lives, but less often do we find those that let us touch the lives of others. Students in the UNCSA School of Design and Production’s Wig & Makeup Program are doing just that by using their art to give back to the community through a medical wig initiative started earlier this year.

The program began as a class in the spring semester, led and instructed by Christal Schanes, who saw a desire among her students for such a class. Schanes worked as a wig-builder for shows like “Saturday Night Live” (where she worked full-time for seven years and won an Emmy) and “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon." She spends her off-time building wigs for patients with cancer, alopecia and other medical conditions. “It’s definitely something that is close to my heart,” she says.

She started thinking about incorporating medical wigs into the curriculum well over a year ago, as students were coming to her outside of class for advice and knowledge on how to build them for family members.

The students inspired me to want to make the class a reality. Once they started asking for it, it was just a matter of making it happen.

Christal Schanes

“The students inspired me to want to make the class a reality,” she says. “Once they started asking for it, it was just a matter of making it happen.”

With the help of Dean Michael Kelley, who secured a grant to help fund the class, she did make it happen. The funding made it possible for students to build high-quality, custom hand-tied wigs at no cost to 12 initial clients. Each student had a $600 budget, with donations of hair and other supplies, to build their client’s wig.

This semester, the medical wig project has expanded beyond the classroom to become a production assignment, allowing students to build wigs for medical clients year-round between their work on UNCSA performances.

We have big hopes and dreams for this, Schanes says. The program is currently seeking funding to get the production assignments off the ground. The ultimate goal, Schanes adds, is to help as many clients as possible.

The spring class has already had a lasting effect on students. In fact, graduate student Uriel Najera pursued medical wig work this past summer after completing the class. He received a grant from the Semans Art Fund, which provides funding to current UNCSA students for innovative and special projects, study, research and performances.

He used the funds to build three more medical wigs for clients through Novant Health. He sees this, he says, as a potential career in the future.

“You never think of wigs as benefitting people,” he says. “But what I’ve realized is that it’s definitely the little things that can change someone’s life.”

Connecting with Clients

So many of our patients lose a lot of what makes them feel like a woman ... Their hair is important. Helping them maintain their body image is a huge part of treatment.

Candiss Vestal, Radiation Oncology Nurse

It’s almost unheard of for patients with cancer and other medical conditions to be able to afford custom wigs of the quality provided by the Wig & Makeup Program, as insurance does not typically cover the cost.

Each of the wigs is made from human hair (which can be washed and styled) and shaped specially for each client's head. They are light as air, according to the clients, and with a third of the material of manufactured wigs, they are highly breathable — essential for those with sensitive scalps. 

The minimum cost for such a wig starts at $3,500 for materials and time, requiring between 80-125 hours of labor to manually tie the estimated 100,000 knots that go into a wig. 

Nurses April Crissman and Candiss Vestal can attest to the impact a high-quality, cost-free wig has had on some of their patients in the Radiation Oncology Department at the Novant Health Derrick L. Davis Cancer Center.

“Most patients can’t afford to pay for a wig,” Crissman says. “They are already spending so much on treatment.” And even if a wig is affordable, it’s not typically made with a patient’s specific needs in mind and tends to become easily matted and unmanageable.

The fact that the class was able to provide the wigs to the patients free of charge has been a huge relief to the clients, she adds.

Crissman and Vestal have taken the lead on pairing patients at the Cancer Center with the Wig & Makeup Program. They were connected to Schanes through Beth Miller, a medical physicist in the Radiation Oncology Department, for whom Schanes had made a wig nearly 15 years ago.

“So many of our patients lose a lot of what makes them feel like a woman,” Vestal says. “Their hair is important. Helping them maintain their body image is a huge part of treatment.”

For three student and client pairs in the spring class, building and receiving the wigs had quite the impact. Below are their stories:

by Corrine Luthy