Dear Doctors: Our mom is going through chemo and radiation, and she's feeling bad about herself. Do you think the makeup and wig program at her hospital might help? We've suggested it, but she's worried it's frivolous to care about your looks when you're fighting cancer.
Dear Reader: The moment that someone learns they need to undergo treatment for cancer, their life is radically altered. There's the fear and uncertainty about the future, the challenges posed by the treatment itself, and the mental, emotional and spiritual toll that the entire process often takes. Learning that they're seriously ill disrupts an individual's sense of self.
This includes the physical changes that take place during the course of treatment, which often cause psychological distress. Hair loss, which includes eyelashes and eyebrows; weight loss; surgical alterations; surgical scars; skin pallor; loss of muscle mass and muscle tone; lymphedema, or swelling because of damage to the lymphatic system; prolonged exhaustion; and changes to sexual function all hit at the core of our identity. Anything that can help the person feel safer, stronger and more like their old self is a blessing. All of which is to say that, no, there's nothing frivolous about wishing to look better, because it goes a long way toward helping you feel better during a difficult and isolating time.
Most hospitals and cancer-treatment centers now offer programs like the one you've discussed with your mother. Many are staffed by licensed beauty professionals, including hairstylists, makeup artists, aestheticians and nail technicians who volunteer their expertise. The focus is on helping patients to manage the appearance-related side effects that arise during and after cancer treatment. These programs help patients with skin-care routines, makeup techniques, manicures and pedicures, and wigs, turbans and other types of head coverings.
The physical changes from the rigors of breast cancer treatment can be unexpected and scary, and these programs help women cope. In addition to hair loss, some types of chemotherapy and radiation cause skin to become thin, dry and fragile. Sometimes women experience changes to pigment or find that their skin becomes itchy or burns quite easily when exposed to the sun. Chemotherapy can also affect the nails, which can become cracked and turn a darker color. The programs offer instruction in specific beauty techniques, as well as guidance on the skin-care and makeup brands and products that are kindest to skin and safest for cancer patients.
For women who have decided against breast reconstruction following mastectomy, these programs often include help with selecting and fitting prostheses and finding sources for the bras, swimsuits and other clothes that have been specially designed to accommodate them. Just as valuable are the human connections that are made. Staff members are often cancer survivors themselves, and, thus, understand exactly what each patient is going through. They also offer a view of post-treatment life. Fellow patients using the hair, skin and makeup services also become a valuable source of comfort and support. Families and friends can offer love and empathy, but only someone who has had cancer can truly understand the experience.
Eve Glazier, M.D., MBA, is an internist and associate professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Elizabeth Ko, M.D., is an internist and assistant professor of medicine at UCLA Health. They can be contacted at Ask the Doctors c/o UCLA Health Sciences Media Relations, 10880 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 1450, Los Angeles, CA 90024, or by email at AskTheDoctors@mednet.ucla.edu.