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2018-03-20 14:24:31  + video 

SHANGHAI — On Dongan Road, home to one of China’s best oncology hospitals, everything is more or less related to life and death — and the diseases in between. In addition to Fudan University Shanghai Cancer Center, the street boasts pharmacies, flower and fruit shops, and ads for short-term accommodation catering to out-of-town patients waiting to start treatment.

Deep in an alley lined with stores selling Chinese medicine sits Pinqin, a tiny wig shop and salon that serves chemotherapy patients. On plain white shelves sit wigs of various lengths, styles, and colors. Young women in hats step into the shop with friends in tow and cautiously inquire about styles and prices. The owner, Qin Kang, is on hand to answer their questions. The 36-year-old from northeastern China got the idea for the shop from a client, also a cancer patient, when he worked as a hairstylist at a Shanghai salon.

Most of the customers of Pinqin, a tiny wig shop and salon, are chemotherapy patients at Fudan University Shanghai Cancer Center. Wu Yue/Sixth Tone

Now, around 20 customers come through Qin’s shop every day, most of them visiting after treatment at the hospital across the street. One of them is 26-year-old Zhou Shuwen. The university administrator from southwestern China’s Yunnan province was diagnosed with breast cancer last June, just as she was considering applying to a Ph.D. program and had begun planning her wedding, set to take place in March. But all that came to a halt.

Many patients have told me that they didn’t cry when they were told they had cancer. But they cried when they saw the first tuft of hair shaved off their heads.

“I used to assume that this disease would only strike middle-aged women. I never thought that I would have it at such a young age,” she says.

After she was diagnosed in Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan, Zhou began treatment that led to pain, fatigue, and severe allergies — though her side effects were far more mild than those of fellow patients who experienced vomiting and could barely eat.

In China, more than 3.1 million people are diagnosed with cancer every year, and the disease causes over 2 million deaths annually. While both numbers continue to rise, chemotherapy remains one of the most common cancer treatments in China. Most patients start to lose their hair soon after therapy starts, and many eventually choose to shave their heads.

To some, it is one of the most emotional moments of their life. “Many patients have told me that they didn’t cry when they were told they had cancer,” Qin says. “But they cried when they saw the first tuft of hair shaved off their heads.”

Zhou knows the feeling well. “The moment I became determined to shave my head was the moment I had to face the reality that I was a cancer patient,” she says. As the razor sheared off the last few strands of hair, the young woman remembers bursting into tears.

Xu Wenyu, a cancer patient, touches her head before trying a wig at Pinqin wig shop in Shanghai, Jan. 29, 2018. Wu Yue/Sixth Tone

Xu Wenyu, a cancer patient, touches her head before trying a wig at Pinqin wig shop in Shanghai, Jan. 29, 2018. Wu Yue/Sixth Tone

According to Dai Wenyao, a social worker at Shanghai Changzheng Hospital, hair loss often deals a blow to the already-low morale of many cancer patients. “A simple wig can help them rebuild their confidence,” she tells Sixth Tone.

Qin Dandan, a stylist at Pinqin who is also the owner’s sister, says this is precisely the goal of the wig shop: “Many who come here hope and long for something beautiful in their life.” Putting the long, messy wigs purchased from manufacturers on mannequin heads, the 25-year-old turns them into fashionable hairstyles.

Though she found interacting with cancer patients emotionally overwhelming at first, Qin Dandan now enjoys chatting with them, especially middle-aged female customers, who often nag her like her mother does: Young girls like you should take good care of your body. Don’t stay up too late, or you’ll regret it! “There are ups and downs in their lives,” Qin Dandan says. “But cancer patients are not all living in misery.”

A simple wig can help [cancer patients] rebuild their confidence.

Zhou agrees: “If not for this disease, I would not have known these people who have so much passion for life and such a strong will to live.” She often feels encouraged by her fellow patients who remain upbeat even though their conditions are worse than hers, such as a young mother with breast cancer who continues to walk her daughters to kindergarten every day, and another female patient who arranges karaoke and hiking excursions with her friends. Although Zhou was initially against the idea of buying a wig, she changed her mind after meeting a cancer patient who was wearing one. “When I saw her, I realized wigs can make us look beautiful,” she says.

Yet finding a suitable hairpiece is not easy, especially for chemo patients. Zhou has tried to buy wigs on Taobao, China’s largest e-commerce platform; though most cost only a few hundred yuan, they were too big for her head, as the wigs are usually designed for people with hair.

After coming to Shanghai to seek further treatment and undergo a mastectomy at the Fudan University Shanghai Cancer Center, Zhou came across Qin Kang’s wig shop by chance one day while browsing the internet.

Shops like Pinqin are usually found near hospitals, and most cancer patients choose to purchase from them because they have wigs specially designed for people undergoing chemotherapy. In addition, the stylists are more familiar with patients’ needs: They are knowledgeable about the side effects of cancer treatments and can estimate when patients’ hair will grow back. With a mere glance at the top of a customer’s head, Qin Kang and other stylists can recognize the treatment stage they’re in and provide answers.

Another important reason why cancer patients come to Pinqin is to avoid being stared at or asked awkward questions, such as why they shaved their heads.

Most of the wigs sold at Qin Kang’s wig shop are short hairstyles, Shanghai, Jan. 29, 2018. Wu Yue/Sixth Tone

Most of the wigs sold at Qin Kang’s wig shop are short hairstyles, Shanghai, Jan. 29, 2018. Wu Yue/Sixth Tone

When it comes to purchasing wigs, however, it is often the prices that prevent patients from getting what they want, according to Dai of Changzheng Hospital. Wigs at Qin Kang’s shop range from 300 to 4,000 yuan ($50 to $600); better-quality options usually go for more than 2,000 yuan, which is too expensive for many patients, especially those who traveled to Shanghai from faraway places in search of better medical services and have spent most of their savings on treatment and accommodation. Some hospitals, like Changzheng, have started to cooperate with the local Qingsi program, which partners with universities and organizations all over the country and uses hair from donors to make free wigs for cancer patients.

Before I got sick, there seemed to be so many possibilities in life. But now, I don’t dare think too far into the future.

However, there are some who prefer to spend as much as half their monthly rent on a quality wig while living in old, crowded apartments near the hospital during their treatment.

Back at Pinqin, Zhou eventually settles on a short wig. Before undergoing chemotherapy, she had long tresses for years. “I often console myself with the thought that the good thing about this torturous process is finally getting the chance to try a short hairstyle,” she says, “though I didn’t think the first time I tried on a wig would be under such circumstances.”

For Zhou, the wig brings a sense of normality to her life. On better days, when she feels strong enough, Zhou dons her wig and takes a stroll with her boyfriend under the trees in the former French Concession area. “I am grateful that he has stood by my side even though I have cancer,” Zhou says while holding her boyfriend’s hand. “If not for this disease, I wouldn’t have known how much my family and friends love me.”

But still, cancer has changed the young woman. “Before I got sick, there seemed to be so many possibilities in life. But now, I don’t dare think too far into the future,” Zhou says, her smile dimming. “What if my cancer spreads?” Her fear of the future often feels most acute as she lies in bed at night: “I just want to freeze time. Today is a good day. But I don’t know what is waiting for me tomorrow.”

“But when I am pessimistic,” Zhou continues, “another voice in my heart often argues: You should think positively, or else it’s not good for your health.”

Zhou’s chemo finished in December, and she is currently undergoing radiation therapy. Meanwhile, her tresses have begun to grow back, covering her head in soft baby hairs. She is now planning her wedding for the end of the year.

Editor: Doris Wang.

(Header image: Qin Kang (middle) and his colleagues cut and style wigs at his wig shop in Shanghai, Feb. 28, 2018. Wu Yue/Sixth Tone)