It was late at night when I found out my grandmother had cancer. I was, as usual, working at the time, and I quickly became a blubbering, crying mess. But, my mother insisted, nevertheless, that Grandma wanted to hear my voice in order to make her feel comfortable. I gathered myself just in time for her to answer the phone. "Hi, Phillip," she said. "I'm okay — I'm strong, don't worry about me. And, I'm wearing the lipstick you gave me."
It's easy to dismiss makeup, hair, nails, and perfume as frivolous. But, they can make all the difference when things spiral out of control — especially when said things involve the Big C. Every little way we can make ourselves (or our loved ones) feel better truly matters.
Given that Breast Cancer Awareness Month is coming to a close, we thought it would be more than appropriate to interview some wonderful women (and one lovely lady's son) about the role of beauty in their breast cancer experiences. It's an honor to be able to share their stories, from the beauty-industry veteran who finally learned to stop caring so much about her hair, to the stage 4 patient who refused to give up spray tans or manicures.
Read what they have to say here, and please feel free to share your own memories or journeys in the comments section.
Jeanette was diagnosed with stage 1 ductal-carcinoma breast cancer at the age of 51. "I was very fortunate that my treatment plan didn't involve chemotherapy," she explains. Instead, she needed radiation — and it was successful. Her treatment ended around the time of her daughter's Bat Mitzvah. This year, she was chosen to participate in The Estée Lauder Companies Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign.
"Whenever I was struggling with how I felt about myself, I turned to my husband for support," she says. "He always made me feel strong and beautiful as a person."
She found that her beauty routine became more regimented during her treatments. "I was more thoughtful about how I looked," she explained. "I continued to work full-time during [radiation], so it was important for me to maintain a sense of normalcy. My beauty routine helped with this feeling."
In fact, paying more attention to her skin proved to be cathartic. "It looked better than before!" she says. "The ritual made me feel like I had some control over things. By the end of my treatment, there were more ladies going into their treatments getting dressed up and wearing makeup. It felt like we were part of a community."
Lilla was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer when she was 46 years old. Her daughter was eight, and her son was five. She endured chemotherapy for six months, plus one year of IV therapy and six weeks of radiation. "It took a good two years from the beginning to the end," she explains.
"I'm also a nurse. I have a lot of medical background," she says. "But, when I went through chemo, I didn't realize that I'd actually lose all of my hair...including the little ones we take for granted. I was breathing, and it felt weird because I didn't have hair in my nose!"
Losing the hair on her head was particularly traumatic. "My daughter was going into the third grade, and it was hard for her. She couldn't see me without a head-covering on. And, for my son, he has this habit where he'd touch my hair. He still does it! But, he would be touching it and clumps of hair would fall out into his hand — that was hard to watch."
When she decided to shave her head, she did so with the help of a hairdresser friend. "I'm Italian, and I converted to Judaism. But, when I converted, one of my ideas was to buy a wig and cover my hair for religious purposes — but, my husband wasn't into it. So, when it came time to shave my head, my friend said, 'What you wouldn't do to get a wig!' We were laughing...you have to find humor."
In a sea of change, Lilla kept one constant: "I would always wear lipstick. That's part of my signature. I'll wear nothing, but at least I'll wear lipstick — it makes me feel dressed. You want to look the best you can." Before doctor visits, she'd even rub a little into her cheeks to make herself appear more flushed. She also developed a penchant for more natural brands, like Dr. Hauschka.
"People were very kind. Like, I went to get eyelashes put on, and the aesthetician didn't charge me," she says. Now that she's in remission, her experience with the disease remains with her. "My body image has completely changed. There's always a message to take your time, make your eyelashes look a little better, and not to wear low-cut shirts. It's always there."
Snooky is, perhaps, best known as half of the dynamic female duo behind Manic Panic, the cult hair-dye line beloved by teenage punks and beauty insiders alike. So, her experience with losing her hair had a particular poignance.
"Hair and beauty is my business," she says. "And, my hair was my lion's mane, my crowning glory, my trademark! But, before it all fell out, I asked Tish — my business partner, sister, and best friend — to cut it all off. We made a party of it where all my friends were there, and everyone took home a small lock of my hair. We sent the rest to my friends in Mexico who make wigs, and they made me one out of my own hair. Lots of people never knew it was a wig. In fact, I wore it when I visited customers because I didn't want them to think my baldness had anything to do with the colors I sell!"
Beyond client meetings, she shelved the hairpiece for special occasions. "I realized that being bald was liberating. I didn't need hair for my identity. I just needed my heart and soul," she says.
For one special night, she got fully back into character. Before performing in the annual Joey Ramone Birthday Bash (did we mention she's also a singer?), she decided to pull out all the stops. "I remember looking like hell when I arrived to the dressing room," she says. "Once I put on my wig, makeup, and lashes, I felt transformed from a world-weary cancer patient into a glamorous goddess who was ready to rock!"
In April of this year, 31-year-old Lindsey was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. A PET scan shortly thereafter showed that it had spread to her liver, bumping the disease to stage 4. "It [had] now gone from curable to treatable," she explains. However, just recently, she learned that the cancer had disappeared from her liver and the tumors in her breast have shrunk. "It's really great news," she says.
But, the initial diagnosis was very difficult for her. "Shortly after I met with the doctors, understood my diagnosis, and came out of shock, one of my next thoughts was, What the hell am I going to look like?" she says. "It's one thing to be sick. It's another to look sick. Without sounding super vain, it's honestly one of the hardest parts."
The biggest hurdle had to do with her hair. A longstanding client of the famous Marie Robinson Salon in New York City, she had become used to "messy, sun-kissed hair." Now, her long, thick, and naturally wavy strands had succumbed to cancer.
Not without a fight: "I did research, and I found something called Penguin Cold Caps. They are essentially a cryotherapy method, where you put caps at very cold temperatures on your head for a period of time before, during, and after each chemo treatment." The idea was that it would help protect her hair for as long as possible. "The doctors told me that between days 15 and 17 of chemo it would start to fall out, and on day 16, it began. Like clockwork."
Lindsey's friends provided solidarity and support. "My oldest girlfriends from back home all cut their hair when I did," she says. "It made it so much more bearable and not so lonely." Her sister shampooed her in the sink, and cleaned up the loose strands before Lindsey could see them.
"I'm humbled and amazed by these people every day," she says. "I don't wake up every morning feeling beautiful or fabulous, but I wake up. And, I do so with an unbelievable amount of love and hope, and I'm more grateful for that than any great hair day."
Gabriel, a Refinery29 employee, helped his mother, Ma'ayan, through breast cancer treatment, which she completed two years ago. "My mom had already been wearing her hair short for a number of years," he says. "So, wigs weren't for her. Instead, I encouraged her to go for the headscarf-with-statement-earrings look." (This was a little inspiration he divined from Samantha Jones' experience battling cancer in Sex and the City.)
"Her hair eventually started to grow back in a tightly-coiled pattern, and she totally rocked it," Gabriel says. "My dad was really into the look, too, and would frequently spend time rubbing her scalp, which was cute."
For Ma'ayan, though, the struggle was less about losing her hair, and more about having it all come back. "Having cancer has become an integral part of my mom's life experience, even though it's now out of her system," Gabriel says. "She once told me that her hair growing back was bittersweet, in the sense that her prior baldness had served as a visual identifier to others that she was dealing with the disease. Even as the hair has grown, her internal experience remained the same."
Peggy, 54, was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 40. "I had five young children at the time, aged two to 13," she says. Her treatment took five years, including multiple surgeries, chemotherapy, and tamoxifen. "I lost my hair 21 days after my first chemo treatment," she says. "The anticipation of losing it — and actually losing it — was pretty traumatic. But, once it's gone, you get over it."
It turns out, being bald was less of an issue for Peggy than it was for her loved ones. "I didn't think I looked sick with my wig on. I didn't want the kids to worry," she says. "I even wore it at home, even though it was hot and itchy and uncomfortable." The upside was that a wig was much less maintenance than shampooing, conditioning, and styling. "Every day was a good hair day!"
Peggy's experience with beauty during her treatment inspired her to co-found a nonprofit called Diva for a Day, through which patients get nominated to receive a full day of head-to-toe pampering. "It's a way to forget about all the stresses of appointments, treatments, tests, [and the rest]." You can get involved or make a donation by visiting the fund's website.
After discovering a lump on her 29th birthday, Dena was told she has stage 2b, triple-positive breast cancer, only to be re-diagnosed with stage 4 of the disease after chemotherapy. "I still receive chemo every three weeks, as well as hormone suppressants, but you'd never be able to guess by seeing me!" she says.
And, cancer hasn't taken the beauty lover out of her. "There's still some [pressure] for women going through a cancer diagnosis to not care about beauty or how you look...and I think that it's bullshit," she says. "The things I loved before I got sick, like a trip to Sephora or devouring fashion magazines, didn't change just because I was facing this scary diagnosis. If anything, it became my escape — my way to control a world that was rapidly spinning out of control."
Dena brokered little deals with her doctor, like trading good blood-test results for his permission to receive regular manicures (they're discouraged for patients) — she researched products that were safe enough to use and brought her own tools for the technicians. She also developed a special skin-care routine that she still follows, filled with loads of plumping hyaluronic acid. And, she blogged about it all on her website.
Luckily, she had a ton of support: Her friends threw a fundraiser to help her cover the costs of her wig and medical expenses. When a scar on her head left her unable to wear anything — including a headscarf — she responded by creating a "Baldspiration" board on Pinterest.
"I was pretty much always spray-tanned to a golden shade of brown, and I kept my nails and toes in an impressive array of bright, cheerful colors, because they made me happy," she says. "I always drew my eyebrows on and drew a dark-brown or black liner, since I also lost my eyelashes."
The diligence of her routine provided a haven. "There's no shame in wanting to feel beautiful," Dena says. "Getting a cancer diagnosis takes a lot away from you. Why should it take that away, too?"