Cancer: Benefits of beauty, personal care go more than skin deep

August 16, 2013 | by

Looking good makes you feel better. The Positive Image CenterSM at City of Hope sees the evidence daily, with more than 5,000 visits a year from patients seeking to look their best.

Karen Butcher gets a hair cut at a pop-up salon event at City of Hope. Positive body image is an important component of patients' overall care, experts say.

Karen Butcher gets a hair cut at a pop-up salon event at City of Hope. Positive body image is an important component of patients' overall care, experts say.

For patients, the center can be much more convenient, and less stressful, than a salon. Many find that juggling daily life and cancer therapy doesn’t leave a lot of time for a trip to the salon. Others aren’t  comfortable getting the pampering treatments that used to be relaxing. And still others are physically limited by their cancer or treatment.

At the Positive Image Center, patients learn how to minimize the cosmetic side effects of illness or medical treatment. They consult with specially trained, licensed cosmetologists who offer guidance about skin care techniques, alternatives for hair loss and much more. The setting is typically more private and soothing than a salon, where they could be surrounded by people who might not understand their condition, concerns or even their physical needs.

This week, the Positive Image Center went the extra mile by partnering with The Beauty Bus Foundation, which brings hair and beauty services – via pop-up salon –- to patients in their homes and at health care providers. During the foundation's visit, patients received make-up applications, haircuts and manicures. It also provides packages of beauty supplies to patients nationwide.

"It’s an important gathering of all the patients,” said Cassie Polchow, a cancer resource cosmetologist in the Sheri & Les Biller Patient and Family Resource Center. “It’s a support group without being called a support group.”

And, as experts pointed out, appearance does matter – to the patients themselves.

“Our hair, our eyelashes, our brows, our skin, these are things that can or might make us feel feminine,” said Courtney Bitz, L.C.S.W., a clinical social worker at City of Hope. “Our body image can affect our relationships, our confidence, our ability to advocate for ourselves and ask for help. Addressing these issues is important for patients, and for their caregivers.”

Even patients who don’t have an opportunity to go to a pop-up salon or attend a make-up application lesson should seek the opportunity to pamper themselves, be kind to their bodies and find support from fellow cancer patients and survivors. Bitz and Polchow offer the following advice for women confronting cancer and its changes in their appearance.

Seek out opportunities to connect with other women who can relate to your experience. Women need to connect with other women going through similar experiences – without necessarily discussing cancer. “With nearly every woman I see, that peer support is consistently helpful and important to help prevent feelings of isolation,” Bitz said. Polchow recommends patients seek out a Look Good, Feel Better class. These classes, designed through a joint effort of Personal Care Products Council, American Cancer Society and Professional Beauty Association | National Cosmetology Association, are offered at City of Hope, and other centers nationwide. Their website is also a helpful resource for women.

Find ways to connect with your body. Various cancer therapies can affect appearance, and patients can have a hard time adjusting to that fact. Bitz urges women, and men, not to fixate on particular aspects of their bodies. Instead, she said, they should focus on ways beyond appearance through which they can feel connected to, and proud of, their bodies. For some women, the positive image boost comes from their experience as runners or swimmers ; others may recall the strength they felt in childbirth. “It’s not all or nothing,” Bitz said. “Connect to times when you felt really positive about what your body could do, and not just focus on negative changes.”

Actively pursue support. The unknown often frightens patients more than the reality, Bitz said. For example, women who fear losing their hair find the prospect much more alarming and worrisome before they talk with other women who have experienced it. Learning for themselves what solutions are available and formulating a plan for coping with it reduces the fear even further. Social workers, supportive services like the Positive Image Center, and other patients are all great resources.

Address body image as part of your overall care strategy. Patients can feel isolated when their appearance changes. That, in turn, can lead to increased emotional distress and depression. Further, a negative body image can affect relationships, particularly sexual relationships, damaging a couple’s ability to connect during a very stressful time. Don’t dismiss these feelings as unimportant. Women may be less likely to assert themselves or ask questions of their doctor – which can affect their overall care – but they need to speak up.

Caregivers should participate, too. The stress of cancer treatment and diagnosis affects more than patients. Giving family members the time and permission to recharge with a manicure, facial and a little extra pampering benefits them, too.