For the Üsküp family, cancer was an unwelcome visitor at Thanksgiving last year. “It was really shocking,” said Dilara Üsküp, 24, of the news that her mom had HER2-Positive Breast Cancer. Deborah Üsküp, 57, was a mom who often sacrificed paying a bill so that Dilara could pursue extracurricular activities and who risked drowning in the Detroit river one year trying to rescue Dilara’s winning science fair project. “She was all upset, crying,” remembered Deborah, an Army Veteran, about Dilara after she accidentally dropped her pollution detection equipment, “So I climbed over the fence and went and got it.” When cancer hit, Dilara was determined to give back to the woman who had given her so much. An idea finally came to Dilara in December: “I’ll support the ‘mommykins’ as she goes through breast cancer treatment and wear a wig in solidarity.”
“I felt like my femininity was being attacked,” Deborah said about the fear of losing her hair and breasts at the same time. Although cancer spared her breasts, her pixie-styled coif wasn’t so lucky. Deborah is a woman whose hair has known the spectrum of notable black hair styles across the decades. In college, she proudly wore an afro to be in solidarity with many in the civil rights movement and in the 80s she was in the company of those who wore shower caps in the street to retain the moisture of a silky jheri curl. But in every case — she had a multitude of choices to express herself and cancer had changed everything.
“I only had either the choice to embrace the baldness or wear a wig,” Deborah continued, “I do admire the women who do wear their hair bald but I just wasn’t at that point… so I’ve been wearing wigs.” While she predominantly wears a wig in public, she insists on letting her daughter see her as she is, and when she finally took the step to shave her head, it really left an impression on Dilara.
Dilara, a PhD student at University of Chicago, hustled through classes so she could travel to Southfield, Michigan every other Thursday through Sunday to attend appointments and track down winning wigs with Deborah. “We would try on wigs and name the look,” said Dilara of quality synthetics dubbed “Tina Turner” and “The Soccer Mom” which ranged from $45-$100. Deborah’s veteran status meant that she also received social service benefits from their local Veterans Affairs hospital which included a list of wig vendors and their choice of a high-quality synthetic wig each year. Dilara was vigilant about accessing these VA benefits and together they learned key lessons about wigs: the shorter the wig, the easier to see the tracklines; breathability is solid gold; some wig vendors will wash and rehab the wig every season.
Haters withstanding, the entire process has given them some laughs and some insights on empathy. “Noooooo – you don’t have to do all that!” Deborah recalled with laughter when Dilara initially offered to shave her head. Dilara also recalled mishaps at aerobics class, “She had us on the floor and it’s [the wig’s] literally sliding off and I am trying to hold it and do a crunch.” The process overall has also been humbling for Dilara who underneath her wig wears her hair natural and previously might have double-taked at a woman and thought, “Why are you wearing a 20-inch weave?” Dilara who now manages @Cancerviver, a Twitter account raising awareness about breast cancer explained, “I would be tired taking the train back and forth at times every other week. Other people go through that too. Sometimes I would take that for granted and not allow people days to not be at their peak.” Deborah shared, “Sometimes we see a person wearing a wig and we have negative judgements, but you never know what’s underneath that person’s story.”
Rose Afriyie is a writer and Ruby on Rails Developer of civics and social services apps based out of Chicago. She contributes to platforms about women’s stories. She co-developed, mRelief, an app that provides low-income people to see if they qualify for social services.