Adapted from an article by Betsy Batish in Cancer Fighters Thrive magazine
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.
When Dawn Jones (pictured above) 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. “I was going to feel like less of a woman, look like less of a woman. Emotionally and mentally, that was a very hard pill to swallow.”
Looking in the Mirror
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.”
Kicking Up Her Heels
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’ve learned to accept me for me, and love myself past the pain, past the scars, past losing my breast, past the cancer.”
Lori Kovell, M.S.S., L.C.S.W., 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.”
“Whenever patients can take control of something, they are no longer a victim. 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.”
New Look, New Outlook
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.
Experimenting with and embracing beauty and fashion can provide patients the opportunity to improve their self-image and sense of wellbeing—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.