You know what words should go together more often? “Beautiful” and “cancer patient.” Cancer is anything BUT beautiful, but each patient’s strength and steadfastness is one of the most beautiful things to witness. Our own founder, Nanea Hoffman, has breast cancer. She’s had a double mastectomy and her hair is starting to fall out from chemo, and I gotta say: that woman is BEAUTIFUL. Her heart is strong, her willingness to be so open and honest is incredible, and her ability to say “fuck this, I’m not going down easy” is remarkable. So when she asked me for some help to feel beautiful when she has no hair, I jumped on the opportunity.
What I didn’t expect to find, though, was complete crickets on beauty products to help cancer patients – even from former survivors. It was just another painful reminder that we can release limited edition hot pink lipsticks with ribbons that supposedly give profits for research, but there’s little out there for ACTUAL PATIENTS. Hopefully, this list can change that. Here are some things that can *actually* help you feel and look your best without breaking the bank or feeling obligated to buy pink products with ribbons.
- Wunderbrow: A fantastic gel formula that literally provides brows for DAYS, Wunderbrow is an amazing product that gives you your brows back. Want to go out in the world and feel more normal? Or just look normal for the days you’re stuck in bed? Swipe on this beauty and you’ll have your old brows (or the brows you always wanted) in no time.
- Etsy: The fact is, hair loss is an inevitable thing with chemo. So why not try the hair you’ve always wanted with a wig? Support wig artisans and local craftsman on Etsy, or use programs like Pantene Great Lengths to find affordable wig options. Don’t feel like you HAVE to stick with your old hair style. Nanea can attest to the power of a blue bob on bad days.
- Castor oil: Castor oil rubbed on the scalp and what’s left of brows and lashes will keep the hair that’s there conditioned and prep for future hair growth. It works even better when massaged in with lavender and rosemary essential oils. Scalp massage time? Yes, please!
- Moisturizer: Deep but gentle hydration is needed with chemo. The problem? Everything is aggravating and doesn’t cut it! Enter Avene, French thermal spring skin care brand made to heal and cushion skin in complete happiness. I use the mist daily, and swear by the moisturizers to provide the deep hydration I need in the winter without breaking me out.
- Body Oil: A body oil should be layered under any body moisturizer. This one from Hempz is nourishing and soothing on even the angriest skin. It adds a protective barrier and extra moisture to the deepest layers of skin. More moisture means less itching, and that’s always good.
- Sheet masks: This Korean gem is filled with hydrating, soothing essences. They’re super easy to find on Amazon, too, especially in bulk. I personally love the TonyMoly brand. 10 masks for $11? Yes, please.
- Hand Cream: Chemo destroys hands. Help those skin cells recuperate with this dense hand cream from L’Occitane. My mom’s gotten dozens of people turned on to her nightly ritual: a self-hand massage with this luscious cream to help calm yourself to sleep. It’s also great for worriers who tend to use their hands as distraction.
- Support: Okay, so we may be annoyed with the pink plastering everywhere, but what we LOVE is people donating to organizations that actually help research. Right now, ULTA Beauty has an option in stores and online to donate anywhere between $1-$100 alongside your purchase to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, one of the most dependable research charities for breast cancer research. There are also $5 accessories and “Cuts for a Cause” events for even more ways to show support that don’t involve the trademark ribbon (and it’s admittedly an ON-trend coral pink, not Pepto Bismol).
- Give Your Breasts A Facial: The skin on our face is slightly different from the rest of our bodies, but what often gets ignored is that the particularly sensitive facial skin extends down to our neck, décolleté, and breasts! Follow these tips inspired from breastcancer.org (and added to by yours truly) to help keep that delicate skin at its best during treatment:
- On a day-to-day basis, and especially on treatment days, keep your skin soothed, breathing, and happy.
- Wear loose-fitting shirts, preferably cotton. Nanea loves Comfport shirts on treatments days, as do her nurses! If you have any broken-in cotton shirts, now’s the time to wear them. Dress them up with a cute scarf or blazer and some jeans, and you’ll look awesome for a night out when you want to feel like a human being. Also, hit up anyone you know who’s a button-down fan for their old shirts. Trust me when I say they’ll feel amazing.
- Use warm rather than hot water while showering to keep skin from dehydrating. Try not to let shower water fall directly on your breasts. Avoid harsh soaps that have a lot of fragrance; instead use fragrance-free soaps with moisturizers. While lots of doctors recommend Dove, I find that it can lead to breakouts and skin that isn’t completely moisturized. This one from Hempz will keep skin cleansed, calm, and plenty hydrated between the hemp seed oil and the oatmeal working their magic.
- To help prevent redness and skin irritation, avoid having skin-on-skin contact. This most often happens where your arm presses against your armpit and the outer portion of your breast, along the bottom crease of your breast, where your breast might droop a bit and lie up against your upper belly wall, and along your cleavage where the breasts snuggle up against each other. It may take a while to find a comfortable position, but some engineering and ingenuity will pay off. If you can, find a nursing pillow (Boppy is a highly recommended brand) to prop your breasts on.
- To avoid skin-on-skin contact, try to keep your arm away from your body whenever possible. Wear a strong bra without underwire to keep your breasts separated and lifted (this one from Victoria’s secret is perfect for this.) If you have large breasts, when you’re not wearing a bra, stick a soft washcloth or a piece of flannel or soft cotton under your breast.
- Regularly dust the breast area and inside skin folds with cornstarch to absorb moisture, reduce friction, and keep you smelling fresh. You can use baby powder made from cornstarch (don’t use talc), sifted kitchen cornstarch, or something a bit more healing with this blend of cornstarch, lavender, green tea, cucumber, and other soothing ingredients. Apply it with a clean makeup brush or put some of the powder into a single knee-high nylon or thin sock and knot it at the top. Gently tap the sock against your skin to dust the surface. If your doctor has recommended using creams or salves, apply those first, then dust the area with the powder. A great repairing salve with more healing power than typical creams is this beauty from SheaMoisture, which can also prevent the ugly, real issue in our next point…
- With or without radiation, yeast infections are common in the skin fold under each breast – particularly during warm weather in women with large breasts. Signs of yeast infections are redness, itchiness, and sometimes a faint white substance on the skin. If you have a yeast infection, take care of it before radiation so it’s healed before it gets worse. While athlete’s foot cream is often recommended, it can be too aggressive in my opinion for delicate breast tissue, especially when dealing with chemo. I like this cream that’s recommended for mothers and babies with thrush, an oral yeast infection that often accompanies breastfeeding, since it heals especially delicate and aggravated skin tissue with no harm. While it’s more on the granola side of things, it uses herbs and oils that have been used for centuries to help with this specific problem, and I’m a big proponent of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” If this doesn’t cut it, talk with your doctor about a prescription.
- Manage irritation during and after your course of radiation:
- At the beginning of treatment, before you have any side effects, moisturize the skin after your daily treatment. Breastcancer.org recommends an ointment such as A&D, Eucerin, Aquaphor, Biafene, or Radiacare, but those all contain a high amount of petroleum jelly, which coats the skin instead of actually moisturizing it. I recommend a two-part layering system for this: a lighter moisturizer that soaks deeper, and a protective waterproof barrier. Layering this cream that’s gentle and SERIOUSLY hydrating with this petroleum alternative balm that’s waterproof and still breathable. You also can put it on at night—wear an old T-shirt so the ointment doesn’t get on your bed.
- For mild pinkness, itching, and burning, apply an aloe vera preparation that’ll soothe the heat. Or try 1% hydrocortisone cream (available without a prescription at any drugstore). Unfortunately, some people (myself included) don’t have the best reactions to hydrocortisone. A good alternative is a calendula gel, like this one which provides all the relief without the potential of hydrocortisone reactions or buildup.
- If areas become red, itchy, sore, and start to burn, and low-potency cream no longer relieves your symptoms, ask your doctor for a stronger steroid cream available by prescription. If another prescription isn’t an option or isn’t wanted, make sure you’re thoroughly rinsing off any moisturizer in the shower, cleansing skin, gently patting dry, then layer body oil, moisturizer, a barrier cream, and a body powder. I recommend products from Hempz, Avene, Kopari, Kora Organics, and Lucas’ Paw Paw Ointment. Also try looking for “post-procedure” products from dermatologists. They’re normally geared for skin that’s just been majorly irritated from chemical peels or surgery, so it’s perfect for skin relief.
- Some people get some relief by blowing air on the area with a hair dryer set to “cool” or “air” (no heat).
- Don’t wear a bra if there are raw areas.
- If your skin becomes dry and flaky during the course of your treatment, moisturize frequently and cleanse skin gently. A baby washcloth is perfect for getting the flakes off gently.
- If your skin forms a blister or peels in a wet way, leave the top of the blister alone! The bubble keeps the area clean while the new skin grows back underneath. If the blister opens, the exposed raw area can be painful and weepy. Keep the area relatively dry and wash it with warm water only. Blot the area dry and then apply a NON–ADHERENT dressing, such as Xeroform dressings (laden with soothing petroleum jelly) or “second skin” dressings made by several companies. My personal favorite is this one from Band-Aid brand that can stay on in the shower.
- What about sun exposure during radiation therapy?
- During radiation, it’s best to keep the treated area completely out of the sun. Wear a bathing suit with a high neckline, and wear a cover-up when you’re not in the water. Wear an oversized cotton shirt to cover the treated area and allow it to breathe.
- Avoid chlorine. Chlorine is very drying and can make your skin reaction worse. If you do swim in a pool, you might want to spread petroleum jelly or Waxelene on the treated area to keep chlorinated water away from your skin.
- After your radiation treatment is done, the skin that has been exposed to radiation may be more sensitive to the sun than it was in the past. You can go out in the sun and have fun, but continue to protect your skin. Use a sunblock that is rated SPF 30 or higher on the area that was treated. Apply the sunblock 30 minutes before you go out in the sun, and reapply the sunblock every few hours, as well as when you get out of the water.
- On a day-to-day basis, and especially on treatment days, keep your skin soothed, breathing, and happy.
10. Tat Up: Okay, so maybe going under the needle while on chemo isn’t necessarily smart (read: unless your doctor gives you the OK, don’t even think about it), but you have other options! Henna and body painting are awesome ways to add some elegance, beauty, or badassery to yourself while you’re missing some hair. Ask for a henna tattoo crown, talk with the artist about any particular things you do or don’t want included (or pick from a former design of theirs) and have some fun.
I hope this list adds to your arsenal and that it makes a painful process a bit easier. No go out and fight this shit like a champion.
Oh, and #FuckCancer.