I’m going to be honest with you. Before this year, I did not spend a lot of time, money or effort on a daily beauty routine. My attention span stretched to whichever products were on offer on payday, and – most nights – remembering to remove my eyeliner before I fell asleep. I was OK at best, slovenly at worst. That all changed one night, however, when during a Netflix binge on a cold night in January, I found a lump in my breast. It triggered the most stressful, challenging journey of my life; within just a few weeks, I’d become the unlucky 1 in 1,237 women to be diagnosed with breast cancer in their 20s. Suddenly, my year became less about partying and my biggest beauty worry being the fact that I still didn’t know which shade of foundation to wear and more about gruelling months of chemotherapy, IVF, radiotherapy, surgery and hormone therapy.
It’s hard to explain how much your priorities change in the moment you’re diagnosed with cancer. Yes, you go through all the classic emotional upheavals. You learn what matters to you, who you can rely on. You’re forced to learn how to slow down and try to look after your health. You also learn how to appreciate the little things (but not in the cheesy, ‘Bucket List’, motivational way you’re thinking). You learn to appreciate things that you may have overlooked while you were down on yourself and missing the big picture. I stopped caring if I looked fat in a tagged photo on Facebook, and started to care about preserving every last one of my tiny little eyelashes. You start to care about beauty not because of how you’re seen by the outside world, but because of the control and power that comes with deciding how to curate yourself, how to decide how you present yourself to the rest of the world.
Beauty has taken on a new meaning – it’s been a lifeline back to my normal life
After the shock of diagnosis wore off, I was certain of one thing -- I did not want to become another sad, tragic, brave, cautionary tale. I was (and am) many things, and I didn’t want my identity to suddenly be reduced to “a sick person”. Unfortunately, I am a sick person. I can’t change that and I’m reliant on a brilliant team of doctors to help me out to the other side. The only thing I can keep hold of in terms of control is how I’m seen by the rest of the world. Beauty has taken on a new meaning – it’s been a lifeline back to my normal life.
Before being diagnosed with cancer, my beauty recommendations came from listicles I read online, or whatever I could rummage from my friend’s makeup bags in crowded pub toilets. Suddenly though, that changed. I began to rely on forums, Facebook groups and Instagram strangers across the world – young women like me whose lives had been turned upside down by tumours, malignant cells and the threat of looming alopecia. They were, like me, determined not to let cancer snatch their identities away. “I wanted to control my narrative,” one woman I met on a forum, Natasha, told me. “When you look sick, people just don’t treat you the same.”
Women like Natasha aren’t vain and nor am I. In fact, their focus on beauty is less to do with looking good and more to do with looking like themselves. One mantra I’ve heard often repeated in the ‘cancer world’ is: “It’s not vanity, it’s sanity”, and it’s one that I buy into entirely. Being diagnosed with cancer allowed me to see beauty through another lens, where it wasn’t a slog or a responsibility but rather an important chance for me to be seen as a normal young woman. Beauty is my lifeline to how I lived before.
The products that have helped me on my journey so far:
Burt's Bees sensitive daily moisturising cream
If you could pick a time to have cancer treatment, you wouldn’t choose to have it during one of the most oppressive heatwaves in recent memory. Hot flushes aside, chemo can play havoc with your skin and leave you more sensitive to burning, drying and chaffing. While there are plenty of products on the high street which promise to restore moisture to damaged skin, many cancer patients (myself included) worry about adding unnecessary chemicals to their body. Burts Bees’ sensitive creams are 99% natural, and gentle enough to not cause extra stress to the skin.
A silk pillowcase
Many of my beauty regime choices during cancer treatment have been motivated by my decision to ‘cold cap’ during chemotherapy -- an experimental technique which sees women freezing their head with dry ice or gel. Without getting too much into the science of it, chemotherapy attacks all rapidly dividing cells in our entire bodies, which include (obviously) malignant cancer cells, but also explains why it causes our hair to fall out. Cold-capping or scalp cooling ‘tricks’ the body into thinking hair follicle cells are dead and therefore the drugs shouldn’t attack them, preventing hair loss.
Unfortunately, the success of cold-capping is hard to predict. While I’ve had good success and have managed to keep around 75-80% of my hair throughout chemo, there are a lot of extras steps to take to try to protect your hair outside of the actual time you’re wearing a hat full of ice. One of the most highly recommended in cancer circles is the use of a silk pillowcase. Whether you’re in chemo or not, a silk pillowcase is supposedly softer on our skin. It also pulls on the hair less than a normal cotton pillowcase, which can reduce the traumatic experience of waking up after a night of tossing and turning from night sweats to find clumps of hair that’s fallen out.
You can pick one up fairly inexpensively on Amazon (like this one) or treat yourself to a lovely one from Slip, which specialises in silk pillowcases – they’re a great investment. Just don’t forget that you can’t shove them in the washing machine with the rest of your bedding and ruin the silk (I did this, yes).
While the loss of eyelashes isn’t as pronounced and long term as going completely bald during chemotherapy, it can still be a traumatic loss for many women with cancer. It’s generally accepted that your eyelashes will thin and may completely fall out towards the end of treatment and while there are many natural methods you can try to keep them as thick as possible (many women use castor oil before bed to try to keep their lashes), Revitalash is a favourite among women trying to restore their eyelashes as quickly as possible. The good news is that they grow back fairly quickly after chemotherapy – the usual time seems to be around 3-6 weeks to return to the beginnings of normal. Revitalash is also safe for women whose skin is often left much more sensitive by months of gruelling chemo infusions.
Whether you managed to keep some of your hair through your cancer journey or not, it’s understandable that your focus once you’re finished is to look ‘normal’ again. And for most of us, that means having a full head of hair. While regrowth is often slow, many women – myself included as I reach the end of my chemotherapy – turn to Nioxin. The Nioxin site offers an online consultation and will recommend the best system for your specific type of hair loss. It promises to guarantee thicker, fuller hair in 30 days or they provide a money back guarantee.
It goes without saying that it’s important to clear all supplements and vitamins with your medical team, but if your oncologist does approve it, then Biotin is a great place to start. Part of the Vitamin B family, these supplements can help to halt or reverse the breakage and weakness that are part of the havoc chemotherapy can ravage on your hair and nails. One 2012 study found that Biotin found a significant improvement in growth and quality after 90 days.