Sheril Cohen, 42, describes her first wig-shopping experience as harried and demoralizing. In a month she would start an aggressive course of chemotherapy to fight the cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes. She knew that her hair would fall out soon afterward. "I was adamantly private about my cancer," Cohen says. "When you lose your hair, you’re outed."
The salesman at the upscale New York wig store showed her its stock, told her she’d never find a wig to match her own long black hair, then ushered her out — he had another customer. Even at stores where the salespeople weren’t so abrupt, Cohen says, "It was like trying on bathing suits in a parking lot."
She eventually bought three wigs and even sewed one hairpiece into a baseball cap to wear while running. But the memories of her humiliating shopping experiences stayed with Cohen and, ultimately, inspired her to start her own business. Girl on the Go, launched in December 2003, offers at-home wig consultation, fitting, and styling.
Cohen, who runs the business from her home in Clifton Park, New York, once earned big money as a marketing executive. Life was all about work: "I’d wake up at 6:00, go running, get to the office at 9:30, work for 12 hours and eat dinner on the way back to my Manhattan apartment," she says. She’d been at a new job for only a month when she realized that the hard lumps she’d felt on her torso two months earlier had grown. "I panicked, of course, but I was also kind of stoic," Cohen says. "I intuitively knew I had cancer." Her mother had died seven years earlier of pancreatic cancer, and Cohen spent her first year out of grad school taking care of her. "The week before I found the lumps, I woke up in the middle of the night, alone, to a kiss on the cheek," she says. "I hadn’t felt those lips in so long, but I knew they were my mom’s. She was coming to protect me from the bad news I was about to hear."
Doctors struggled for six weeks to target the disease’s primary location, finally deciding to treat Cohen as a breast cancer patient. She started chemo and threw herself into work. "I was sick, but insane about getting things done," she says. "I’d gotten so far in my career, and I didn’t want all my accomplishments to just go away." At first her hair shed on her pillow; then the curls began to fall out more easily — she’d find them on her computer keyboard. Finally, on a Sunday night at her sister’s house in New Jersey, the hair started coming out in fistfuls. "My 3-year-old nephew touched my ponytail, and it felt like the whole thing was going to fall off. So my sister and I cut it off," she says. "I hated that moment in my life." For more than two months, Cohen wore a wig to work. "One or two people said they liked it," she recalls. "Maybe they were trying to be supportive, but pointing out my wig just made me feel belittled. I was grabbing every single cell of courage I had to go to work and feel normal." Finally, in March 2001, four months after her diagnosis, she went on disability leave. "I was trying to arrange chemo around traveling," she says. "Then my oncologist told me, ‘Work or live.’"
Cohen underwent 13 months of treatments, including a bone marrow transplant, and was declared cancer-free in January 2002. She returned to work that March, assuming she’d settle into her old life without a hitch. But her experience had changed her. "I just didn’t care whose team got the budget and who was sitting to the left of the senior vice president," she says. The upside of returning to the office: Coworkers confided in Cohen about their own sick friends and family and their trouble finding wigs. Cohen guided some of the women through the process. "It dawned on me that cancer patients were desperate for help."