Looking good helps women cancer patients feel better, gives more confidence to cope with disease

Published on March 30, 2013 at 7:32 AM · No Comments

A year ago, Colleen Williams was into the natural look. She seldom bothered to put on makeup and she let her long, wavy, brown hair flow free. Cancer treatment changed that. These days, when she feels well enough to go to work, Williams wears her "cute hat" to cover her newly-balding head and takes a little extra time in the morning to pencil in her thinning brows and apply concealer to make her skin look a little less gray.

In the fall of 2012, doctors diagnosed Williams with triple-negative breast cancer. She underwent a bilateral mastectomy and had a follow-up surgery to remove lymph nodes. Williams has only just begun to cope with many of the physical changes that come with cancer treatment—from disfiguring surgeries, to hair loss, to dry and itchy skin from chemotherapy. But with each physical change she encounters, she has found a little makeup can go a long way in making her look and feel healthy.

We all have a self-image: that picture in our heads of what we look like. If we get sick, our bodies change, our appearance changes, and so does our self-image—often taking quite a blow. While there is no evidence to suggest that looking good will speed a cancer patient's recovery, a growing body of research indicates that understanding and effectively dealing with the appearance changes that occur during cancer treatment may help patients better cope with their disease. A 2011 study of head and neck cancer patients at University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center found that 75 percent of participants acknowledged "concerns or embarrassment about one or more types of bodily changes at some point during treatment." Some of these patients also voiced that they were dissatisfied with the care they received regarding their body image issues and would have liked additional resources to help them cope.

Depending on the patient, coping with appearance changes may take many forms: physical activity, therapy, or basic makeup application. A study by Look Good…Feel Better, a program of the American Cancer Society and the Personal Care Products Council Foundation, found that "86 percent of women cancer patients said that looking good helps them feel better and gives them more confidence to cope with their disease." The Look Good…Feel Better program offers free sessions to female cancer patients in more than 3,000 hospitals and community centers across the country. Makeup artists, aestheticians, hair stylists, and wig experts volunteer their services to give women a step-by-step beauty tutorial. The two-hour group sessions "help women understand what they can do to manage and control their appearance related side effects," says Louanne Roark, executive director of the Personal Care Products Council Foundation. "It gives them an opportunity to address the issue in a proactive way."

When a friend suggested that Colleen Williams attend Look Good…Feel Better, she did not hesitate. For Williams, finding a sense of normalcy during her cancer treatment has been key. And while she has attempted to take everything in stride, appearance changes can be a bit shocking, both to the patient and her friends and family. "When you are out and about, you don't want to look different because that is really when it happens," says Williams. "When you lose the eyebrows and the eyelashes it is hard to make them look real. It is hard to look like your normal self anymore."

Understanding how facial changes affect the lives of cancer patients has been a major undertaking for Michelle Cororve Fingeret, Ph.D., director of the Body Image Therapy Program at MD Anderson, one of the 67 NCI-designated Cancer Centers. The majority of Fingeret's patients have had a disfiguring surgery due to their cancer. She noticed that many of her patients who had undergone changes to the face were in a great deal of distress. "The face is a very socially significant part of the body. It is very visible and difficult to hide."

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