Alt-Health: More Than Skin Deep

chemoNineteen years ago, Marianne Kelly, a licensed cosmetologist, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The 18 months of rehabilitation were tough. She had to relearn such simple tasks as walking and feeding herself. But none of this was as troubling to her as the changes in her looks. She’d always been particular about her appearance, and the loss of her hair and the acne on her face represented a final loss of control over her own life. She felt defeated … and then she decided to fight back. When her appearance improved, she saw a marked improvement in her health. “I discovered there was more to healing than medicine,” Kelly said. “Feeling good about myself played a very big role in my recovery.” She wanted to help others dealing with the same problem. What began in 1994 as a volunteer cosmetic pushcart in Baltimore’s Union Memorial Hospital became a business that provided a range of services, free makeovers and emotional support to patients who are facing physical changes. In 2001 the first Image Recovery Center was opened at the Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center in Baltimore. Doctors and nurses found that the perks of a makeover had a surprisingly positive effect on patient recovery. There are now 20 such centers operating in hospitals across the US.

In 2002, a survey issued by The American Cancer Society revealed that 86% of women cancer patients stated that looking good helped them feel better and gave them more confidence to cope with their disease. In response, the Society launched the Look Good . . . Feel Better program. Its sessions provide cancer patients with beauty techniques, videos and online tips. Hairstylists, cosmetologists and wigmakers volunteer their services for the cause. There are now salons worldwide that offer services tailored to those struggling with the effects of cancer. Hospitals are forming partnerships with local salons to serve their patients, and wig salons are tailoring their wares for the chemo challenged.

How can something as seemingly “shallow” as a makeover have such a transforming effect on the spirit? The fact is that our appearance reflects something much deeper than our looks. Our skin is the largest, most extensive organ in our body, and the health of our internal organs, our blood circulation and our state of mind are all represented here. Skin problems can herald a myriad of undetected illnesses, and our nails and hair can speak louder than words ( And on a sheer emotional level, the patchy, shorn head that cancer patients see staring back at them from the mirror says, “You are falling apart!” If they see a full head of hair (even if they know it’s a wig) or an attractive headdress and bright face, their image shouts, “Yes! You are strong; you are whole; you can do this!”

The Oscar nominated documentary, “Mondays At Racine,” tells the story of two sisters who started a program at their Long Island beauty salon offering free treatments for cancer patients. When director Cynthia Wade interviewed breast cancer patients, she was surprised to find that every woman she spoke with said it was much easier to lose their breast than their hair. Clients stated, “I felt I was being erased as a result of my cancer treatment.”

No one understands this better than someone who has been through it themselves, so it is no coincidence that nearly every image improvement center has been initiated by one or more cancer survivors. The Aurora Center, based in the chemotherapy unit at the Doncaster Royal Infirmary in England, was started by two former patients, Valerie Lepedat and Denise Dunn, who are now both in remission. Their chemotherapy treatments left them with serious skin and nail problems, and, of course, loss of hair. Valerie lost both her hair and the shape of her face; weight gain caused by steroids made it puff up like a balloon. Her symptoms left her feeling depressed and defeated: “When you lose your hair it just pulls you down. [In addition] You get mouth ulcers and you lose your figure.” And your self esteem. The Aurora Center’s mission is to give that back.

We are more fragile creatures than we know upon this earth. What keeps us anchored is our sense of self. When we are ill, so much is taken from us. We cannot work or walk at our former paces … sometimes we can’t move much at all. We feel uncentered and out of balance. What we see when we look in the mirror is not just a reflection of our surface selves. What we really see is hope, or a lack of it. When our appearance affirms the worst of our fears, the affect it has on our ability to recover can be devastating. A healthier, brighter image can be the light on a distant mountain that guides us back home.