Simone O’Kane talks to the cancer survivor who has set up a wig business to help other women who lose their hair following chemotherapy

DIGNITY was one thing that Karen McGhee didn’t want to lose when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003.

Like any woman who takes pride in her appearance, the thought of losing her hair was a terrifying one, along with the trauma of a masectomy, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

But when the mother-of-three decided to stand up to her illness, she was once again knocked back down to earth when shopping for a wig, ‘horrified’ by the service that she recieved from unqualified and careless staff.

“I couldn’t believe what was happening, I had just been through surgery and I turned up at a particular wig shop. The woman was rude to me and even told me that my head was too big and the wrong shape for what they could provide. I was shattered and it was the last thing that any woman wants to hear after just losing her hair,” said Karen who lives in Chorley.

That was one of the most haunting memories that stayed with Karen who decided from that moment she wanted to change the way cancer patients were treated, leaving her job as a credit underwriter for the Royal Bank of Scotland in 2006.

Now Karen, and her business partner Beverley Keay, who has 20 years’ experience as a hairdresser have an established shop Dignity, supplying quality headpieces and wigs to cancer patients across East Lancashire.

The pair have been recognised nationally, having recently won the NHS North West non-clinical support award, beating off competition from 30 other contestants.

On several occasions the mother-of-three visited high-street salons, on the advice of her breast cancer nurse, and she discovered that they were all equally poor.

“Bev is a hairdresser and she was the one who cut my wigs for me and I was grateful. I was in a good frame of mind after having my treatment, but for those women who aren’t there was no support out there.

“The wigs that I came across were awful and the service was impersonal, rude, totally lacking in privacy,” said Karen.

At Dignity both women also provide a bra-fitting service to ladies who have been affected by life-changing masectomy operatons.

The established business is NHS approved, and the pair continue to build relationships with women across the UK, including one woman who visits the Charnock Richard-based shop from Switzerland.

Both Karen and Beverley have travelled the UK to learn different techniques, buy wig samples and learn how to provide the best support for women who visit their appointment-only shop that specialises in fitting and styling.

“The process doesn’t just involve helping a woman pick the right wig, it’s about being able to provide support for them and being there for them and even their family members. We are here to listen and understand.

"Women come to us and there’s so many mixed feelings. Some women are angry, some are scared, others are not sure and say ‘how can this happen to me?’ From what we have experienced, losing your hair is far worse than being ill, it’s your pride.”

The Dignity Wigs appointment book is filling up constantly with women who have been recommended by their specialists.

“From the moment that a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer, it can be a long journey. We have made friends over the years and it’s amazing to be giving something back,” said Karen.

“I believe in fate and think that everything happens for a reason. When a woman finds a wig that fits as well as it looks, it’s very emotional, we cry happy tears and there have been lots of tears over the years.

“It’s just wonderful to know that we are providing an experience for women that I never had.”