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Hospital programs help patients deal with physical changes from cancer

The changes that can result from cancer treatment can be unexpected and scary. These programs help people cope, help them feel safer, stronger, more like their old selves.

Most hospitals and cancer-treatment centers now offer programs to patients to manage the appearance-related side effects that arise during and after cancer treatment.
Most hospitals and cancer-treatment centers now offer programs to patients to manage the appearance-related side effects that arise during and after cancer treatment.
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Dear Doctors: Our mom is going through chemo and radiation, and she’s feeling bad about herself. Do you think the makeup and wig program at her hospital might help? We’ve suggested it, but she’s worried it’s frivolous to care about your looks when you’re fighting cancer.

A. The moment someone hears of needing to undergo treatment for cancer, that person’s life is radically altered.

There’s the fear and uncertainty about the future, the challenges posed by the treatment itself and the mental, emotional and spiritual toll the process often takes.

This includes the physical changes that occur during treatment, which often cause psychological distress:

  • Hair loss, which includes eyelashes and eyebrows.
  • Weight loss.
  • Surgical alterations or scars.
  • Skin pallor.
  • A loss of muscle mass and muscle tone.
  • Lymphedema, — swelling because of damage to the lymphatic system.
  • Prolonged exhaustion.
  • Changes in sexual function.

All hit at the core of our identity. So anything that can help the person feel safer, stronger and more like their old self is a blessing. So, no, there’s nothing frivolous about wishing to look better because it goes a long way toward helping you feel better during a difficult and isolating time.

Most hospitals and cancer-treatment centers now offer programs like the one you’ve discussed with your mother. Many are staffed by licensed beauty professionals, including hairstylists, makeup artists, aestheticians and nail technicians who volunteer their expertise.

The focus is on helping patients to manage the appearance-related side effects that arise during and after cancer treatment. These programs help patients with skin-care routines, makeup techniques, manicures and pedicures, and wigs, turbans and other types of head coverings.

With breast cancer, for instance, the physical changes from treatment can be unexpected and scary, and these programs help women cope. In addition to hair loss, some types of chemotherapy and radiation cause skin to become thin, dry and fragile. Sometimes, women experience changes in skin pigment or find that their skin becomes itchy or burns more easily when exposed to the sun.

Chemotherapy also can affect the nails, which can become cracked and turn a darker color.

The programs offer instruction in specific beauty techniques, as well as guidance on the skin-care and makeup brands and products that are kindest to skin and safest for cancer patients.

For women who have decided against breast reconstruction following mastectomy, these programs often include help with selecting and fitting prostheses and finding sources for bras, swimsuits and other clothes that are designed to accommodate them.

Just as valuable are the human connections. Staff members often are cancer survivors themselves and understand what patients are going through. They also offer a view of post-treatment life. Fellow patients using the hair, skin and makeup services also become a source of comfort and support. Families and friends can offer love and empathy, but only someone who has had cancer can understand the experience.

Dr. Eve Glazier is an internist and associate professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Dr. Elizabeth Ko is an internist and assistant professor of medicine at UCLA Health.