When you are facing a diagnosis of breast cancer, worrying about how you will look during treatment, might be the last thing on your mind. After all, you have some very important decisions to make and some difficult paths to navigate. Will I lose my breasts? Will my treatment require chemotherapy… radiation? Will I have the strength to undergo treatment? Will I ever feel like myself again? How will my family react to the news? How will I respond to treatment? And the list goes on and on.
While your appearance might not be at the top of your list of concerns, being aware of the potential changes in your appearance can help you be proactive and plan for how you will respond to them. Just a few of the kinds of changes you may experience are hair loss, fingernail changes, skin discoloration, and weight gain or weight loss. Depending on the kind of surgery you have, you may need new undergarments and prostheses that are appropriate for your individual figure type and size. Note: It is important that you consult with your breast health team before purchasing bras and prostheses.
“Look Good…Feel Better”
Although there is no empirical evidence that suggests looking good and feeling good about one’s appearance can speed recovery or improve treatment outcomes, a growing body of data suggests that understanding, anticipating and dealing with appearance changes during cancer treatment may help patients cope with their disease. According to a study by Look Good Feel Better®, a program offered by the American Cancer Society in conjunction with the Personal Care Products Council Foundation and Professional Beauty Association, about 86 percent of women cancer patients said that looking good helps them feel better and gives them more confidence to deal with the daily challenges of their treatment.
So where do you start?
Since each patient’s reaction to treatment is as different as their individual plan of care, there is no way to perfectly predict what side effects of treatment you may experience. However, it is likely that you will experience hair loss and changes in your skin and nails, so why not prepare in advance.
All’s fair in love and hair.
Before your treatments begin you might try a perky new short hairstyle. The practical reason for a short cut…it will mean less mess and fewer clogged drains if you experience hair loss as a side effect of your treatment. Before your first treatment, take a “before” shot of yourself, or better yet, visit a hair salon or retail shop that specializes in wigs and hairpieces. Bring a swatch of your hair to use for matching and be sure to ask if your wig can be adjusted – your wig size can shrink as you lose hair. Knowing the “before” you, will aid the shop staff in matching the look and style of your own hair in a wig that will help you feel more yourself. Be sure to get a prescription from your doctor for a “cranial prosthesis” (or wig), because it may be covered by your insurance. Note: the prescription must read “cranial prosthesis” to qualify for coverage.
Experiment with scarves and turbans for a dramatic or casual look on days you don’t feel like bothering with your wig. Many women find they prefer head wraps and scarves to dealing with a hot, itchy wig. Note: cotton items tend to stay in place better on a smooth scalp than silk, nylon or polyester, and are cooler as well.
Give yourself options. There’s no reason why you have to decide exclusively between a wig, or a scarf or other wrap. Why not have both available? Some women find that having the option to choose whatever feels right for the day can be empowering.
“We’re not talking vanity here. We’re talking about going on with our lives in lieu of shutting ourselves up in our homes until our nightmare is over and our hair grows back.” – from Who Needs Hair: The Flipside of Chemotherapy by Sallie Astor Burdine
Don’t forget your smile.
See your dentist for regular dental care after clearing it with your oncologist. Be sure to provide your dentist with a list of your medications. Chemo-therapy and radiation may cause xerostomia (dry mouth) and gum recession. Saliva acts as a buffer against the acidic environment that causes tooth decay; so lack of saliva (dry mouth) may result in increased cavities. Some cancer patients also experience cold/canker sores. Your dentist and medical doctor will be able to recommend products to help mitigate the effects of your treatment.
“One night I couldn’t sleep. All I could think about was my dear friend and the nightmare she was going through. Then I wondered where she would be able to go after all of this to find mastectomy items and feel comfortable about her new image and cancer treatment. I kept thinking, there needs to be a place where women can turn that understands what they are going through and has what they need to bring some sense of normality to their lives. And so the process began… and ten months later St. Dominic’s blessed our community with a much needed boutique.” – Debbie Jansen, Director of Retail Operations and creator of St. Dominic’s Cancer Boutique
It’s only fitting to look to the experts.
One of the most difficult parts of dealing with the effects of breast cancer is facing the changes to your body. After a mastectomy, finding comfortable, properly fitting bras, prostheses, and even swimwear is a must, but it can be a nightmare without some skilled professional help. Look for outlets with trained personnel who understand what you are going through and have the training to help you find a proper look and fit.
Lymphedema can be another painful and challenging side effect of breast cancer surgery. Talk to your doctor about your condition and ask for referrals to retail outlets that offer lymphedema sleeves. Again finding the proper fit is crucial to the effectiveness of the product to reduce swelling and pain.
Don’t forget to treat yourself.
You should eat a healthy diet to keep up your strength and stamina, and to shore up your natural immunity that is under attack, but don’t deprive yourself of an occasional treat. Remember, it takes a lot to withstand the assault you are experiencing – physically, mentally and emotionally. Give yourself a break and reward yourself. You deserve it.
It’s great to hydrate.
Drink plenty of water (at least eight 8-ounce glasses a day. It will help counter dry skin problems caused by your treatments. Moisturize your body daily and don’t forget your lips.
Have a manicure or pedicure, a facial, a massage, or something else that makes you feel good, but be sure to clear it with your physician first. Chemo-therapy may have an adverse effect on your fingernails and toenails. Treat yourself to some pretty new colors of polish to give yourself a little boost.
Put on a pretty face.
Makeup can be a challenge when you suddenly find yourself without eyebrows or eyelashes. Your skin texture can also change during your treatment rendering your regular makeup and skin care regimen temporarily obsolete. Look Good, Feel Better® holds free appearance and self-image workshops to teach women undergoing cancer treatment special skincare tips and beauty techniques to help them look their best and feel better about themselves while going through the rigors of their treatment. It also gives participants a chance to bond with other women who are going through the same thing.
We each have an image of how we see ourselves and how we look to others. When that image is suddenly changed in dramatic ways, the discomfort, distress and anxiety we feel is much more than just skin deep. It can be quite a blow, a real body punch, but it doesn’t have to knock us out of the game.
Paying attention to your appearance and doing everything you can to look your best, even under circumstances that may seem insurmountable, can have a major effect on your mood and your spirit. It can also help you feel more like yourself at a time when everything else feels alien. So grab some lipstick, tie on a striking turban and meet the day. If you are going to face cancer and look it in the eye…do it with some mascara and eyeliner! It’s amazing how big of an impact a few cosmetics and some great accessories can have!
For more about looking and feeling better during cancer treatment the American Cancer Society is an excellent resource for programs and services.
TLC (Tender Loving Care) is the American Cancer Society’s direct mail/online catalog and magazine for women dealing with cancer side effects. It offers helpful articles and a line of products including wigs, hairpieces, breast forms, post-mastectomy bras, hats, turbans, swimwear, and accessories. You can order by phone at 1-800-850-9445 or online at tlcdirect.org.
Look Good Feel Better® is a registered trademark of the Personal Care Products Foundation and is non-medical and salon and product neutral. Offered in partnership with the American Cancer Society and Professional Beauty Association, the program is free and conducted by licensed cosmetologists who are specially trained and certified to become Look GoodFeel Better® volunteer cosmetologists. The American Cancer Society holds about 16,000 workshops each year in roughly 2,800 facilities nationwide. Call 1-800-227-2345 to find a session near you.