Going to the Next Level

A non-profit founded by Oh My Hair! helps restore a sense of self during fights against illness, like cancer, with real looking and feeling wigs

Written by Kristen Hampshire  Photography by Marci Ryan

Locks are character. Hair is often a defining feature, a source of pride, a way to be “you.”

Lack of hair due to illness such as cancer makes a statement, one of vulnerability and fight. Maybe you don’t want everyone asking about your story. Or, you want to look in the mirror and not be reminded.

Kate Jacobs recalls with searing clarity the stress of figuring out how to deal with a formal work function she needed to attend with her husband. “I told myself, ‘I have to deal with it, don’t think about it,’” says the 37-year-old Delaware mom who is a medical assistant studying to be a nurse.

About a year go, she was diagnosed with extradonal lymphoma, meaning the cancer rooted in a body organ that is not part of the lymphatic system—in Jacobs’ case, a football-sized mass in her chest. The most grueling aspect of her aggressive chemotherapy treatments were being away from her then one-year-old son for a week at a time every month. 

When she quickly lost a head of naturally ginger hair that was practically waist long, she held on to her grit and pushed through with gratitude for life. But losing hair, eyelashes and eyebrows tells a story she didn’t always want to share, even though she appreciated concern and empathy from those with names she’d never know. “It was bittersweet,” she says.

A friend, Michele Harrington, owner of Berlin-based Oh My Hair! The Salon (OMH), founded a nonprofit called Next Level Healing Hair after walking along her older sister’s journey with ovarian cancer. The sisters went wig shopping and discovered Envy Wigs in Indiana where her sister lives.

“It’s very personal to her, and she gave me back
a little bit of myself—and that meant a lot.”

They met in the showroom, and he generously gave Harrington’s sister a comfortable, natural looking wig that was hand sewn and constructed of material that can be cut, styled and withstand blow-dryer heat. This is unlike itchy, costume type wigs that are certainly more accessible but irritating to the skin and rigid in their ability to be treated like real hair.

Then, a dear client of Harrington’s, a fourth-grade teacher who had donated her thick ponytail four times to Locks of Love, encouraged her whole class to do the same. It was a yearlong project.

Then she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. “I was trying to help her find a wig and the only option was across the bridge—and finding something was really hard,” Harrington describes of an examination room with boxes of tiny color swatches.

Harrington couldn’t believe how difficult it was for a cancer patient to restore dignity through hair.

This is her passion with the nonprofit she started, Next Level Healing Hair, located in a private studio upstairs from OMH, because the fittings and conversations are rarely without tears and hugs.

Harrington partners with Envy Wigs, which has a patented synthetic-human hair blend that looks and feels like the real deal. Rather than machine-sewn synthetic wigs, these are hand-tied. “They are light-weight and see-through so you can see the scalp, and it moves like real hair,” she explains.

Jacobs met with Harrington, who sized her head—another defining feature of these real-life hairpieces—and helped her select a color that mimicked her own locks. She first asked Jacobs whether she wanted a new look, a different color. “I decided I wanted to look close to what I had looked like before, but with shorter hair because I work in healthcare,” Jacobs relates.

When the wig arrived for a fitting, Jacobs—with the event on the next evening’s calendar—felt a weight lift from her shoulders. “She pulled out this wig and it looked like my exact hair color, and I instantly started crying. I was a woman again,” she says.

OMH also offers free haircuts to those whose hair is growing back. Also, Next Level Healing Hair partners with nonprofits including Unstoppable Joy in Salisbury, which refers those fighting cancer to Next Level Hair for hair pieces. Unstoppable Joy provides a range of hope and healing services.

Harrington helps select just-right wigs, which involves measurements and custom cuts to accommodate any style. She performs any tweaks or fixes, and the relationships she builds and hope that Next Level Healing Hair offers are rewarding and inspiring.

Jacobs says, “It’s very personal to her, and she gave me back a little bit of myself—and that meant a lot.” CS

Visit @NextLevelHealingHair on Instagram to learn more or donate, or via Venmo @NextLevelHealingHair.

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