IT’S tough enough when a woman gets a cancer diagnosis, but when the medical treatment she receives also affects her appearance and her self-confidence, then it’s a double blow.
“The difficult thing about cancer is that you can already feel your body is failing you — as with any kind of illness — but with cancer treatment it can have a dramatic effect on your physical appearance,” says broadcaster and online beauty columnist, Louise McSharry, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2014.
“I personally found the loss of my eyebrows and eyelashes to be the most difficult. The hair on my head I didn’t mind so much; it’s much more difficult to look in the mirror and see a completely bald face,” the 34-year-old RTÉ 2FM presenter tells Feelgood.
You don’t realise what an impact your eyebrows and eyelashes have in terms of making you look — I suppose, like a woman as well — they are very tied up with your femininity. So figuring out how to fake my eyelashes and fake my brows was a really significant thing for me during my treatment.
McSharry says she had to do loads of research. “Finding something that was waterproof for my eyebrows was very important, for instance, because one of the symptoms of my chemo was that I sweated a lot and had hot flushes. I couldn’t have any eyebrows that would drip down my face, so it was a lot of trial and error really until I found a routine that worked for me.”
While the self-confessed make-up addict is used to experimenting, lots of women stick to the same routine and when that fails them during the cancer journey, “the idea of going outside is quite daunting”, she says.
McSharry is campaign ambassador for Boots Ireland, which is highlighting, for this year’s Daffodil Day, a free cancer support service offered in their outlets countrywide throughout the year, featuring 130 trained cancer beauty advisers and 142 Irish Cancer Society information pharmacists among its staff.
In conjunction with the campaign, a survey carried out among women in Ireland who are living with cancer reveals the majority (85%) experience low self-confidence due to physical changes from their treatment. More than a third (38%) avoid public situations and 17% avoid family and friends due to their physical cancer symptoms.
The survey shows that the emotional impact of physical changes from cancer can run deep, with almost half (49%) stating they experienced anxiety, a third experiencing sleep issues, and 30% saying they felt embarrassed.
While we generally associate symptoms such as hair loss with cancer treatment, many women also experience loss of eyebrows (51%) and eyelashes (46%). The majority (77%) of women surveyed also said their skin texture changed and more than a quarter (28%) experienced intense itching, as a result of their treatment.
“As our face is the first thing people look at, appearance can be very important to many women and even more so, if they are going through probably the biggest fight of their lives,” says cancer beauty adviser Rose Sturgess.
“The women I have met over the years have confided in me that they were self-conscious, embarrassed, even anxious, going out anywhere and worried people were looking at them.”
Sturgess, who has been a beauty adviser with Boots for the past 12 years, says women can be anxious to “be as they were before” their cancer diagnosis.
“It’s not until we get to the make-up that I see the biggest difference in how women feel afterwards, with comments like ‘Oh my God my husband won’t recognise me’, or ‘I never thought I would look normal again. I feel fantastic. Ready to face anything.’ All said with smiles on their faces,” she says.
So what advice regarding that struggle with self-confidence would McSharry give?
Do whatever makes you feel comfortable because it’s hard enough when you’re sick, without having extra things to worry about. So if wearing a wig makes you comfortable then wear it and if not, don’t. If a bit of help with your make-up is going to make you feel more like yourself, as you leave the house then go for it. If you don’t feel like wearing make-up, that’s OK too. You don’t owe anyone any particular appearance in the world, so don’t put pressure on yourself. But if you can give yourself a boost with beauty products, then why not?
Sturgess says it’s wonderful “seeing a patient look so happy with themselves” after a service. “Just knowing that you have made their day and maybe made them feel good — even for a short time — makes it worthwhile and very satisfying.”
To see more about the beauty advice service check online at boots.ie or in store at the No7 counter
Cancer beauty advisor Rose Sturgess gives some tips for women who are undergoing treatment:
Cancer treatment may cause light skin to redden and dark skin to darken, but make-up can help disguise these changes.
Your nails should go back to normal after treatment.
In the meantime, here are some ways to care for them:
If your nails haven’t spilt, disguise colour changes with nail varnish but do not use false nails.
“Without eyebrows the eye recedes into the background and can make your face look featureless. We show how to apply products to the brow area, whether it be with a brow pencil, shadow or brow kit.
The eye lashes are equally important so we also show how to give the illusion of still having lashes with shadow or pencil and how to remove it safely and gently.”