Healing cancer from the outside in

Lipstick, moisturizer and a wig can’t cure cancer. But beauty — andbeauty products — can help heal wounded self-esteem, which often takesa big hit as patients undergo cancer treatment.

Lipstick, moisturizer and a wig can’t cure cancer. But beauty — and beauty products — can help heal wounded self-esteem, which often takes a big hit as patients undergo cancer treatment.

Experts say hair loss, skin discoloration and skin dryness can undermine an already physically difficult and emotionally draining process.

“Some days I didn’t want anyone to see me or even have my husband look at me,” says Michele VonGerichten, a breast-cancer survivor. “When you are waiting for your hair to grow, you spend a lot of time looking into the mirror, just waiting for a sign that you’re going back to normal.”

Survivors and counsellors both say the moment a person doesn’t recognize herself in the mirror because of physical changes caused by treatment can be one of the lowest points of the process. VonGerichten says the minute she took charge and regained her beauty routine, her spirits improved.

While she hopes never to put on her wig again, she says she’ll also never go back to the very long hair that she had before chemo­therapy began last March. Her hair is now “a really short version of the Jamie Lee Curtis cut.”

VonGerichten is one of 650,000 female cancer patients in the United States to participate in the 20-year-old Look Good, Feel Better campaign, sponsored by the Personal Care Products Council Foundation. Free to any cancer patient, the program offers tips from makeup and hair professionals from across the country on all things cosmetic: Topics include how to style a wig, tie a head scarf, fake eyebrows and even out discoloured skin.

(In Canada, Look Good Feel Better was launched at Prin­cess Margaret Hos­­pital in 1992, and more than 90,000 women have since participated in its workshops; see lookgoodfeelbetter.ca.)

Appearance might seem trivial in a life-or-death situation, but there are known links between stress and the immune system, notes Katherine Puckett, national director of the mind-body medicine program for the Cancer Treatment Centers of America.

“Looking good helps with confidence, which helps with stress, which helps immunity, which helps treatment,” she says. The CTCA works under the guideline that each phase of cancer treatment is connected to another, Puckett explains, and having a beauty salon on site is certainly part of that. Some men will visit the salon, she says, but it is typically women.

Still, once patients are debriefed on the mind-body connection, Puckett says she’s never seen anyone who isn’t receptive to the idea that improving self-esteem might ultimately improve health.

Paul Moskowitz, chief oncology social worker at Montefiore-Einstein Center for Cancer Care in New York, says he can see the difference when a patient has either attended a Look Good workshop or some other sort of cosmetic counselling. “I can tell when they’ve been applying lip product or if they’ve been fitted for a wig. It’s not even in their appearance, but they’ll be more talkative and you can see a willingness to express more of their feelings, and that’s all part of healing.”