For many patients, the first question upon learning they have cancer is, “Will I lose my hair?” Hair loss is one of a variety of image-related changes that can have a profound emotional impact as patients proceed through treatment and recovery; other potential challenges may include surgical scars, skin rashes from radiation, and weight fluctuations. All of these changes can alter patients’ self-image. However, while these changes may come as an initial shock, many patients have learned to embrace the image-related transformation treatment brings, ultimately becoming empowered by showing the world their creative, stylish personalities.
Learning to Love Myself
When Dawn Jones received a diagnosis of stage III inflammatory breast cancer in 2000, the doctors told her she would lose all of her hair from the year-long chemotherapy regimen, as well as her left breast due to a mastectomy.
“The hard thing was knowing I was going to lose my breast and my hair,” Dawn recalls. “Emotionally and mentally, that really took its toll. I was going to feel like less of a woman, look like less of a woman. That was a very hard pill to swallow.”
She says the impending changes to her appearance forced her to take some time to contemplate and pray about why they were upsetting her so much.
“I had to ask myself, am I upset because of what other people are going to see, or because of what I’m going to see when I look in the mirror?” Dawn says. “I prayed a lot about it. And I think I was really truly blessed to find the spirit inside to say, I don’t care what other people think of me. I’m here. I’m alive. I’m breathing. Through the spirit and loving myself, I was able to say, it is what it is, but I’m going to survive it.”
As an important step toward taking control of her appearance, Dawn decided to shave her head as a preemptive strike toward losing her hair. When she saw her freshly-shaven head in the mirror for the first time, Dawn says, she found unexpected power in that moment: “surprisingly, it felt like a piece of me came back.”
Feeling newly-empowered, Dawn started taking additional steps toward embracing her changing appearance. She started wearing high heels again, something she found also helped with the peripheral neuropathy she was experiencing in her feet as a side effect of her treatment, and also created her own natural skin care products to nourish her skin. She had fun with wigs, trying out everything from what she calls the “Catholic school girl” to a “funky afro.” And she treated herself to manicures and pedicures.
“Taking care of myself, treating myself, gave me so much personal power as a woman,” Dawn says. “I may have lost my breast and my hair to cancer, but I’m still a very viable woman. I’ve learned to accept me for me, and love myself past the pain, past the scars, past losing my breast, past the cancer.”
The Mind-body Perspective
Lori Kovell, MSS, LCSW, Mind-Body Therapist at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) in Philadelphia, says it is not uncommon for patients to encounter self-image issues while undergoing treatment, and that these issues can impact well-being.
“When patients look in the mirror, they might not recognize the person looking back at them because of the physical changes that are taking place during treatment,” Kovell explains. “What they see in the mirror doesn’t match the vision in their mind of who they are. So, it’s important for us to help them take steps to make what they see in the mirror congruent with who they feel they are on the inside.”
In 2002, a Look Good Feel Better Harris Interactive® survey reported that 86 percent of female cancer patients said that looking good helped them feel better and gave them more confidence to cope with their disease. Having a positive self-image, especially while undergoing cancer treatment, is important for a variety of reasons.
“Whenever a patient can take control of something, they are no longer a victim. They have a renewed sense of power. They might not be able to control the cancer, but they do have control over how they eat, how they spend their day, how they wear their hair or their makeup,” Kovell says. “If it makes someone feel better, whether it’s a new makeup routine or exercising or eating healthier, those things all have the ability to boost energy, raise confidence, improve mood and self-esteem all the while improving a person’s sense of well-being.”
Kovell says the process toward improving self-image is highly individualistic. For one person, exercise might be just the boost they need, while for another person dressing every day (instead of wearing yoga pants) or getting a unique tattoo that represents femininity, grace or power brings a sense of pride and/or confidence. She encourages patients to have fun, experiment and see what makes the most sense for them. “We all have different ideas about what makes us feel better,” Kovell says. “As mind-body professionals, we’re here to help patients find a way to live their best lives during and after treatment.”
For Michelle Hastings, living well with cancer has meant embracing the changes cancer has brought—including the changes to her appearance.
At the age of 31, Michelle thought she had it all—a happy marriage, two healthy children, a house in the suburbs. As she puts it, “the only thing missing was the white picket fence.” But a diagnosis of stage III colon cancer in 2008 turned her world upside down: “My plans, my goals, the person I was trying to become—that all got brushed by the wayside, and cancer became the main topic of our lives,” Michelle says.
She underwent surgery and chemotherapy and was in remission for almost four years when a routine checkup in March 2012 revealed the cancer had returned. This time it was stage IV. But this time, Michelle faced the cancer with a new perspective. “I was not going to let it take control of me,” she says.
She took a calculated first move toward control by shaving her head. Michelle turned the occasion into a small party, inviting family and friends and having her children help shave her hair. She even hired a professional photographer to document the process.
“When you shave your head, you’re taking control of the moment,” Michelle says. “You’re not allowing cancer to determine when you lose your hair.”
Michelle says she was also determined to do everything she could to “still feel pretty.” After shaving her head, she went to the department store cosmetics counter for a makeover.
“I had the makeup artist really do me up,” she recalls. “I did the big lashes, the heavy mascara, the dramatic eye shadow. I decided if I’m going to be bald, I’m going to look good doing it. Being able to still feel pretty was a huge success for me. It boosted my confidence. I finally looked the part of a cancer patient, so I figured I’m going to go with it and look as great as I can.”
Once treatment had ended at CTCA® in Goodyear, Arizona, and Michelle was able to grow her hair back, she decided to have a little fun with it. She dyed her once brunette hair platinum blonde, and later added a mohawk and dyed it different colors for various cancer awareness months—teal for ovarian cancer, blue for colon cancer, pink for breast cancer. She also allowed her son and daughter to chose the colors from time to time. Her son often had her dye it to match the color of his favorite sports teams.
“It’s been fun to use this to teach them to have fun with whatever life throws at you,” Michelle says.
Living a Beautiful and Empowered Life
Experimenting with and embracing beauty and fashion can provide patients the opportunity to improve their self-image and sense of well-being—and can introduce a little fun along the way. Choosing how to develop and maintain a positive self-image during cancer treatment will be unique for each individual, but when patients choose to embrace the changes that treatment brings, they can gain a sense of control and feel empowered to live their best life.