Appearances aren’t everything, but everyone treats their personal appearance with some degree of importance. It isn’t a matter of vanity; appearance is important for a sense of wellbeing. Whether it’s going out in public, feeling confident at work, attracting a partner, or simply feeling good about oneself throughout the day—appearances are a personal and everyday fight against falling into a state of disrepair.
Unfortunately, women are particularly subject to the question of appearance. Beauty standards and body image idealizations are constantly pressuring women into improving or maintaining their appearances, be it in advertisements, the media, the workplace, even among friends and family members. While many are able to find contentment in their own beauty, even the most self-satisfied women face a severe challenge when it comes to breast cancer.
Being diagnosed with breast cancer can mean more than a threat to life for women. Treatment for breast cancer typically means hormone treatment and chemotherapy, which can drastically alter a woman’s appearance. It is not unusual for women to struggle more with the thought of losing their hair and breast shape than with the threat that cancer presents to their lives. These concerns are valid and normal.
If not given the proper consideration, failure to process the changes to one’s personal appearance can reduce a woman’s quality of life even after cancer has been removed. Claire Werner, a social worker at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center, says: “even if the loss may have saved your life, you can still grieve it.” Understanding what may happen in the process of treating cancer and making an intentional decision to move forward in a new direction may prove invaluable to women who survive cancer and continue to live productive and social lives.
The Effects of Cancer Treatment
Women who receive treatment for breast cancer respond to treatment differently, but the changes in a woman’s body can be just as internal as they are external. The psychological impact of being diagnosed, undergoing rigorous treatment, surviving, and attempting to return to a normal life often lead to depression. To avoid this, it is important for women to reclaim their physical identity, and prepare ahead of time for the trials to come.
Most women will undergo surgery as part of the treatment of breast cancer. Typically, the cancerous tumor will be removed, along with some of the surrounding breast tissue. This will cost women the size and shape of one or both breasts and can leave visible scarring. There are options for remedying this; breast reconstruction surgery is an option for those seeking to return to breast regularity, but even with reconstructive surgery, the results will not be exactly the same.
For women who receive chemotherapy, the most common and daunting side effect is hair loss. The value of women’s hair—especially for those who style their hair every day—can make facing the disease much more difficult to process. Until the point that a woman loses her hair, a breast cancer diagnosis can feel like a distant, manageable problem. Once hair loss sets in, the disease can suddenly feel real and overwhelming.
Women who receive hormonal therapy may be introduced to anti-estrogen therapy, which can have various effects on the body depending on the age and body type of the woman. Blocking estrogen can cause some women to enter menopause before they would naturally, which can present a new series of challenges to recovery.
Some women will experience weight gain, some will experience weight loss. It is not unusual to lose mental clarity during and for some time after treatment, nor is it uncommon to experience long bouts of lethargy and fatigue. All of these symptoms can lead to a general sense of being no longer in control of one’s own body, but the loss of physical appearance or ability does not have to be a debilitating transition into a lower quality of life.
Look Good Feel Better
In 1989, the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association (now the Personal Care Products Council) teamed up with the American Cancer Society and the Professional Beauty Association in order to launch the Look Good Feel Better program. Through the program, cancer survivors can participate in beauty workshops, get connected to beauty experts, and receive free cosmetic products to assist them in reclaiming their personal appearance and moving forward.
The program is a nonprofit that relies upon volunteers and donations, ensuring that cancer survivors are able to benefit from makeovers and beauty workshops without taking on additional costs. Licensed cosmetologists sign up for a four-hour training program, and then volunteer to lead either individual or group workshops that focus on skin and nail care, hair and wig care, fashionable head coverings, camouflaging scars and areas of concern, and flattering clothing choices.
By arming women with both resources and knowledge, the Look Good Feel Better program hopes to empower women to show their beauty in new ways. They are not alone, as there are many non-profits focused on advocating for cancer patients and providing both resources and materials to help people regain normalcy after the difficulties of receiving treatment. Checking a nearby cancer center may provide a list of local and nearby organizations that help breast cancer patients recover.
Insurance companies may provide coverage for the cost of a wig, although it may not cover the more expensive and realistic human-hair wigs, which can go for up to $3000. Synthetic wigs are typically between $250 and $500, and most women will choose this option for the short term, as hair will eventually grow back for most women. While it may not grow back exactly the same, being connected to a hairstylist can be a great way to learn how to wear a new hairstyle altogether.
Life After Cancer
The importance of a makeover should never be underestimated. Women who survive breast cancer will already need to live beyond a terrifying brush with mortality, the scars of surgery, and the side effects of treatment. Some women are able to walk through the entire process with confidence and strength, and others may respond in total fear. Either way, it is important to be prepared for what may come and to surround yourself with resources and options.
Sylvia Caruso owns and operates The Hair Studio and Wig Salon, and she has worked with hundreds of breast cancer patients since opening up shop in 1972. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011 and underwent four rounds of chemotherapy in addition to a mastectomy and reconstruction. Her first question when finding out that she would need chemotherapy was not “am I going to live?” but instead: “is it the hair-losing kind?”
For Caruso, running The Hair Studio and Wig Salon is about more than offering people wigs. It is about offering them the support, encouragement, and consultation that they need to feel strong and confident about themselves. Her efforts and care have earned her a place on the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center’s The One Hundred, a list for exceptional cancer advocates.
The lifesaving treatment required to defeat breast cancer may seem to outweigh the physical and mental consequences that women experience afterward, but that doesn’t mean that the fight ends when the cancer is gone. For women trying to bring themselves back to the lives that they led before cancer, a makeover can be just as important as receiving treatment and can be the determining factor in truly putting cancer behind them.