'It's still me' Profile: Cancer survivor Jan Strassburg opens her own wig shop to help women deal with hair loss.
Jan Strassburg, photography by Amber Procaccini
"Hair loss is a highly emotional experience for women because hair is tied to both their identity and their femininity." -Jan Strassburg
by Jennifer Thaney
Jan Strassburg knew she was going to lose her curly, auburn hair. It was April of 2006, and despite being a physically fit marathon runner with no family history of cancer, Strassburg had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Her treatment regimen of chemotherapy, a lumpectomy and radiation lasted about a year, and Strassburg's hair fell out along the way.
"I knew I didn't want to be seen as the cancer person," she said. "A bald head says cancer [to people], it just does."
Her solution was a wig, and the experience shopping for one inspired her to open her own shop in 2009.
Her twin 6-year-old stepdaughters inspired the St. Louis Park salon's name: It's Still Me Wig Studio.
When she came home wearing her new wig for the first time, the twins wanted to see what was underneath. "For the first time I had to take the wig off and saw myself without hair," Strassburg recalled. Partly to affirm herself and partly to reassure the girls, Strassburg said, "Hey guys, it's still me! It's still Jan."
The name stuck.
As far as she knows, Strassburg owns the only survivor-run wig business in the Twin Cities area. About half of her customers are cancer survivors, while the rest have hair-loss issues caused by aging, menopause or other diseases.
'The face of cancer'
Hair loss is a highly emotional experience for women because hair is tied to both their identity and their femininity, Strassburg said. There is also societal pressure to look a certain way. When women lose their hair, they no longer meet those standards.
Hair loss is also proof that something is wrong, she said. When cancer took her hair, Strassburg said she felt naked.
"I felt very vulnerable ... I became the face of cancer. A bald head, to me, is what cancer looks like. I felt identified by that."
For many women, a wig can help keep their cancer under the radar. "[A wig] can help you feel more feminine, give you a stronger sense of identity and give you more confidence," Strassburg said.
For others, wigs symbolize a stigma they would rather avoid. Some use head scarves and hats, while others choose to go bald. "If you can do that," said Strassburg, "I say, 'Terrific.'"
Some, like Ruth Draskovich, aren't even thinking about wigs when they first walk into Strassburg's studio.
"I was adamant that I was not going to buy a wig," Draskovich said she remembered of her first visit last April. She didn't want to spend money on something she would eventually not need after her own hair grew back.
She also assumed that she would look, she said, like a "chemo patient, someone who had a wig that looked like a wig and plunked it onto her head."
But her attention on the hats and head scarves soon turned to Strassburg's wigs, as Draskovich noticed how stylish they were. She ended up buying two, one with tri-color highlights and the other with blonde highlights.
Now, her hair is one less thing she has to have on her mind. "It was just wonderful to have options and to be able to blend in and not stand out in a crowd," Draskovich said.
While Strassburg inspires her customers, they also impress her with their courage and strength, motivating her to implement a gifting program. She helps raise funds to go toward a person's wig, accessories or whatever they need.
Wigs can be expensive; synthetic wigs range from $200 to $600, while wigs constructed of human hair begin at about $1,000 and can cost as much as $2,500.
If Strassburg senses financial worries during her initial consultation, she will mention her fundraising program. Some customers have a support network rallying to help them purchase a wig, while for others it comes as a surprise.
Strassburg is grateful for the success of her business, which was started during one of the lowest points of the recession. "My business was launched with the help of some really great media attention," she recalled. "But I have somewhat of a recession-proof idea."
Her customer base, so much of it touched by cancer, isn't going anywhere soon. "I would be thrilled if cancer came to an end, and I would be happy to find something else to do, find some other business opportunity," she said.
In the meantime, It's Still Me Wig Studio, a niche store within a niche market, has proven that Strassburg is more than a cancer survivor. She has thrived from her experience.
"Never did I think that my adversity could become opportunity," she said, but that is exactly what has happened.
And it's exactly the kind of empowerment she sells to her customers.
FFI: It's Still Me Wig Studio Lang Nelson Professional Building, 4601 Excelsior Blvd., Suite 401, St. Louis Park
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