Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The C-Word: The Beauty of Cancer

This may sound all superficial when you are in what feels like a life or death situation, but beauty products are actually crucial. We all know that when you are happier, you heal faster.  But also, when you look better, people treat you differently. We are only human.

Getting chemotherapy and planning my skincare

I felt hideous when everything started falling apart, not least because people would stare (just for a minute and then look away). I looked like a scrawny, hairless alien. I don't know if they thought I had cancer or something else, but people tended to give me a wide berth, as though my disease just might be catching. My daughters gave me a gift certificate to a place called Spa Castle - a gigantic Korean spa with all kinds of relaxing treatments - and I didn't go because I thought everyone would REALLY stare at me in a bathing suit. It didn't help that most massage therapists, nail salons, aestheticians, even dentists would refuse me treatment because they were scared of what the cancer might do - or my compromised immune system.

Friends would say, "You look great!" in a loudish, fakely cheerful voice. Or they'd tell me about someone else who had chemo and looked much worse. I ran errands, worked and was happy that I could, but I felt embarrassed about my looks. I went to see one of my daughters in her school play and, between scenes, I came out into the lobby and sat on the floor and cried because I felt like a leper.

A few weeks' later, I was in a meeting at an ad agency pitching, of all things, a haircare line, and feeling totally awkward. I mentioned to the table that I didn't need shampoo. My boss laughed, "No, you need Miracle-Gro!" Well, that broke the tension.


How you look matters.

If you are reading this for a friend or family member who is sick, keep that in mind.

To start out, let's forget serious beauty treatments and think about discomfort. Your skin feels rough, hot, dry and itchy - or some combination of the three - during chemo and/or radiation. Unfortunately, almost any commercial product you apply will irritate the skin even further. Your eyes are often red, dry and swollen.

To start with, I didn't use any cleansers at all. My skin was just too dry. I rinsed it with water. If I attempted to use anything even slightly exfoliating, it made my cheeks sting. I only wore natural make-up products so I didn't need to remove them.

Some people suggest you splash water on your face and then apply a thin layer of sweet almond oil. This is the most basic level of care but it is best for babies with eczema because their skin is naturally plump and soft. Since oil just helps seal the moisture into your skin, it doesn't give your skin the cooling, soothing, quenching it craves.

During my 25+ years in the beauty industry, I used to joke that all the expensive skin creams worked about as well as Crisco with fragrance and a nice jar. It's not totally true.

Even post-chemo, you should probably keep this list in mind - what you really need for your skin is a three-part solution - 1. an emollient, 2. a humectant and 3. an occlusive. Many skin products incorporate the three, but if you don't find one that works for you, here's what you need.

The emollient is a moisturizer. It hydrates, softens and plumps up the fine lines. It feels good on the skin. The reason you can't rely on it alone is that it evaporates very quickly. Thus it can leave the skin feeling even dryer than it did to begin with.

Next, you need a humectant. Humectants draw the moisture from the air into your skin. Glycerin, coconut oil and hyaluronic acid (sounds scary but it's actually something your body creates to lubricate itself) are humectants. If you use too much of a humectant, it can make you skin look fresh and dewy, but it can also make it feel sticky to the touch, especially as the product dries - because it does dry but not completely into a thick gel.

So to top it all off, you need an occlusive. An occlusive seals in the moisture and protects and fortifies your skin's moisture barrier. The moisture on your skin not only makes the skin softer and more resilient, it creates a barrier to bacteria, environmental irritants and pollutants. Thus dry skin is actually more prone to infection.

For me, the best moisturizer during chemo was a simple Calendula cream. Look for brands designed for first aid, like Boiron or Thompson's, or for babies. Make sure it is unscented. It cooled the skin and soothed the itchy red rash. I still travel with a tube of this as my face is very sensitive to stress and different kinds of water. (Personally, after cleansing, I start with a Vitamin C product to help re-build the collagen, reduce the dark spots and splotches you get from chemotherapy and brighten the skin. Be careful with this though, as the wrong product can irritate the skin and cause MORE redness (and that's hardly what you need). Liquid Gold is the only brand I recommend for people with cancer, since it's natural and designed for sensitive skin.)

Then I used a humectant. A friend of mine was working for Estee Lauder and she sent me the Creme De La Mer serum, a rich gel - I think it was fortified with seaweed or algae - that, unlike most commercially-prepared products, didn't have a heavy scent or color. You can also use a pure hyaluronic acid or a natural rosewater and glycerin combination mist. I also love a product called Liquid Gold cell quench which is made of hyaluronic acid and plant stem cells. I spray on some rosewater and glycerin and then roll on a little cell quench and spread it around with my finger tips.

My favorite beauty products for people having cancer treatments - and my routine today.

For my occlusive, I then used a heavy moisturizer with a sweet almond oil base called Cleopatra's cream. It's made by a friend of natural, non-GMO ingredients - including antibacterial coconut oil and homeopathic suspensions of minerals and seems to be the ONLY thing that really hydrates my post-chemo dryness. It still smells lovely but not fake in anyway.

Last, I used a balm or oil at night. I've seen herbal shops selling calendula balms made of herbal extracts and essential oils. As long as it is not too scented, you could use that instead. I would test it on your arm and see how it feels. The Liquid Gold brand also makes a balm with vitamin E that is great for sealing in the moisture and healing.

Finally, moisture has to come from the inside, too. While you are having chemo, drink water like crazy and make sure you are getting your good fats - avocados, coconut oil, nuts, rice bran oil. I took 4 capsules a day of rice bran oil, two capsule of rosemary oil and four capsules a day of seabuckthorn oil.

Just remember that everything you apply to your skin gets absorbed into your blood stream, so if you wouldn't eat it, you probably shouldn't rub it into your face, especially when you are weak and your immune system is compromised.

One month after I stopped chemotherapy. My face well moisturized - just eyeliner but nothing else!
When you are all greased-up, let it soak in for a little while so that you don't look too slippery. Then it's time for make-up! There is a little-known brand called Illuminare which was actually designed to be super gentle for a breast cancer patient and is made out of natural minerals. It's a make-up artists secret as it blends really well, a teensy bit goes a long way and it is non-irritating, even if you fall asleep with it on. Since it has a high mineral content, it works as a sunscreen as well - very useful since the skin becomes very photosensitive during chemotherapy and radiation - and it actually helps your skin heal.

Illuminare makes eye products that do not irritate the eyes (but irritatingly, require separate brushes - though that forces you to clean them often which is good) and nontoxic lipcolors that last all day. One finds that one's lips not only get dry and cracked, they become pale.

I still wore my kajal every single day, unless my eyes got too stingy. Kajal is a South Asian eyeliner made of charcoal and healing oils. I use a brand called Hashmi Kajal. It's supposedly made out of Ayurvedic ingredients and protects your eyesight. It didn't bother my eyes, it's cheap and the only bad thing about it is that the plastic cap is really cheap and can break off in your bag and smear the waterproof stuff everywhere so keep it in a ziplock bag. I rinsed it in cold water between uses.

Apart from kajal, I am sucky at applying make-up myself but there are a million great tutorials on youtube. Watch them but, be super careful with the products you choose. It is not worth the discomfort of skin and eyes that are even more irritated than before. I tried my daughters' make-up and came home and cried again because of how much they made my eyes sting and my face hurt.

My friend Mary Schook showed me how to safely apply false lashes if I needed to go out. And these days, there are no shortage of brow products (it's amazing how weird people look with no eyebrows).  This was shot by my youngest daughter, Rara, and the voice-over is by Zarina. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4LvYyk7FDS8

Brush color on your brows - or where they were - slightly lighter than you think because it can very quickly look mad. When you first start, ask someone else to make sure you haven't turned yourself into Salvador Dali or Lucille Ball in the early 60s.

Most people undergoing cancer treatments become very skinny. Like 14 year-old bones sticking out scrawny. If you were never slim before, this is the silver lining. And here is your chance to try layering! While I'd recommend choosing fabrics that are very smooth and soft so as not to irritate your skin further, I used to start with a very thin, soft cotton t-shirt underneath everything because it gave me more options. I also found that a thin pair of cotton leggings under a loose shirt or dress were useful - because there were so many instances during treatment where one had to undress one part of the body or another. With layers like that, you could reveal an arm, a hand, a foot or a leg without leaving the rest of yourself exposed. That way, you feel like you maintain a level of dignity.

Since I live in New York City AND I didn't want to have to buy an entirely new wardrobe before, during and after treatment, I chose most stuff in neutral colors - black, white and gray - with accents in red or blue. I added a bright pop of color near the face - a scarf or hat -  to cheer myself up.

In terms of fragrance, when you really look odd, it's nice to smell sweet. A lot of people find that chemotherapy and/or radiation makes them nauseated and sensitive to smells, especially artificial ones. I found that, at my most nauseated, the scent of natural grapefruit oil was fresh and clean smelling. Lavender and Rosemary - but the natural oils, not the fake stuff - have a green, camphorousness that can cut through the nausea. They are both also calming and antibacterial. Personally, I also found natural rose and jasmine oils very soothing as well as sexy (and not much made me feel sexy at that time).

My suggestion is to go to health food store or natural aromatherapy place and test out some of the oils. Or ask people to bring you a few. Try a tiny bit on your wrist and leave it on for a while. Or put it on a sweater or sweatshirt. See if it smells nice or it makes you feel sick as the day goes on. If you can't handle any scented products at all, don't worry about it. But given the endocrine interruptors and other nasty effects of synthetic fragrance, I'd recommend you avoid them all together.

Also, look at the products in your bathroom. Shampoos, conditioners, bodywash, soaps and lotions can all irritate the skin and eyes - and they also penetrate the skin and enter the bloodstream. I would go as natural as you can manage. I used Dr. Bronner's Lavender soap (I didn't need shampoo), a natural toothpaste with no fluoride (another possible carcinogen) and food grade sweet almond oil or coconut oil on my body after bathing. Then I rubbed on a little natural flower oil. I used a Weleda's natural deodorant made mostly from baking soda and it seemed to work well.

If you are getting radiation, I recommend a 20-30 minute soak in 1 cup of epsom salt, 1/2 cup of baking soda and 1/2 cup of natural sea salt after treatment. Then take a shower afterwards.

I made a big effort to reduce the plastic bottles and artificial cleaning products - all my years of swimming laps made me adore the chlorine smell of Clorox Clean-Up - but you can get much less toxic cleaners made of hydrogen peroxide and they are just as effective at killing germs.

I did not wear a wig because I found them itchy, expensive and ugly. (Plus, I have fond memories of Sinead O'Connor and the model Eve as bad ass b@#ches). Since I underwent chemotherapy from October til February, I was partial to some extremely soft cashmere beanies made by Meg Cohen. These are the nicest, thickest cashmere I have ever felt and they are locally-made by the nicest person. It's a tiny business that behaves with the best ethics.

Think about it this way, if you are going to have something close to your skin (and your crown chakra), make sure it has good energy!

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