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Wellness · October 16, 2017

Living With Breast Cancer: Caitlin

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and were sharing the stories of two women directly impacted by the disease. This is Caitlin's story. Learn more about how you can get involved here.

As the Beauty Editor for a national magazine, Caitlin Kiernan's job was to report on the latest and greatest products, treatments, and trends happening in the beauty industry (it's a tough job, but someone's gotta do it!). Part of her research included interviewing some of best pros and experts in Hollywoodlike Ted Gibson, hairstylist to mega celebs like Lupita Nyong'o and Angelina Jolie, and Ramy Gafni, brow guru and makeup artist to stars including Fergie and Britney Spears. No big deal.

What Caitlin could have never predicted, however, is that her go-to glam squad for tips that appeared on the glossy pages of her magazine stories would prove to be invaluable resources in a far more profound context.

Upon being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012, Caitlin turned to her network of beauty experts to help her navigate the difficultand somewhat unspokenterritory of dealing with the physical and cosmetic side effects of surgery and treatment. After acquiring a wealth of knowledge from their help along the way, Caitlin decided to pay it forward in a book, Pretty Sick: The Beauty Guide for Women with Cancer. We sat down with Caitlin to discuss some of what she learned, and why she believes wholeheartedly that when you look good, you feel better.

On Cosmetics Being Curative...

Birchbox: Some people might feel that worrying about how you look during treatment for cancer is likely the last thing on your mind, and perhaps the least important. Why was that not the case for you?

Caitlin: For me, it was less about looking pretty, and more about taking control over my body during a time when the disease takes that from you. When the side effects started happening (my hair started falling out, my skin started to get bad, and my nails began to lift), it was really tough. But, with the knowledge of some things I could do to help me maintain my sense of self, I felt better. Because in reality, you're not just dealing with a health crisis; it's also a bit of an identity crisis. All of the things that inform ourselves and society of who we are gets stripped from you when you have cancer.

Birchbox: What was the first part of losing that physical identity that you struggled with after your diagnosis?

Caitlin: Definitely my hair. Hair is so funny. "Will I lose my hair?", is the first question doctors get after delivering a diagnosis for cancer. Hair is definitely a security blanket for people, and as much as you may know that's inevitable, it's still hard to accept.

Birchbox: What were some of the physical side effects that you weren't mentally prepared for, or didn't know about?

Caitlin: I think the effect of scent memory was a weird thing to learn (more on that later). I didn't know to expect mouth sores and hives all over my body. No one talks about how you're going to gain about 10 pounds just from the steroids you have to take during treatment. There's a lot!

On Fragrance...

Birchbox: How does your relationship to scent change during treatment?

Caitlin: When you get chemotherapy it alters the mucosal lining of your nose and mouth and that is how you interpret smells. So, your favorite fragrance may smell differently to you because of the chemical reactions that are happening with your skin. More importantly, though, is the power of scent-related memories. You don't want the smell of your favorite products to trigger flashbacks to sitting in a chemo room. No one really talks about that, but I found the best thing to do is to shelf your favorite products during this time and opt for unscented alternativesor treat yourself to a new stash.

On Skincare...

Birchbox: So that would apply to skincare as well as fragrance?

Caitlin: Yep. I think I was so bummed when I realized I shouldn't use my regular stuff, but then I decided it was the perfect excuse to treat myself to some new luxurious products. Not only did it feel nice to indulge during a time when I wasn't feeling my best, but it was a good strategy to make scent memories during treatment with products I wasn't going to be able to afford after my treatment!

Birchbox: Smart! So, what type of skincare did you start to incorporate into your routine?

Caitlin: I needed products that were going to be really hydrating and nourishing for my skin. Most of all, they needed to be effective. I think it's important to turn to formulations that are backed by science and that will really work.

Birchbox: So, it was less important that they all fall under the "organic" umbrella?

Caitlin: It's important to remember that there are regulations for foods, but there are no real clear all-encompassing standards in skincare or makeup. It's great to use skin-loving ingredients and if it makes you feel better to use organic products, then do it. But something like coconut oil, for example, is amazingbut at the end of the day, it's not going to penetrate your skin the way you need it to when you have chemotherapy going through your body.

Birchbox: Interestingany other types of ingredients you should avoid in your skincare during treatment?

Caitlin: Antioxidants! When I got diagnosed my doctor told me "no more juicing, no more supplements, and you have to stop using anything that has antioxidants in it." I didn't understandI was taught for years by dermatologists about all of the amazing beauty benefits antioxidants have on your skin (boosting collagen production, fighting off free radicals, fading sun spots, etc.). But because antioxidants are by nature cell-saving molecules, they can interfere with the chemotherapy's ability to kill cancerous cells. It's not worth the risk.

On Hair...

Birchbox: So, going back to your hair what wound up happening?

Caitlin: I knew I was going to have to get a wig, but I had no idea where to start. I called Ted (Gibson) to help and the first thing he asked was when my treatment was starting. He stressed how important it was that I shop for a wig as soon as possible, because you want to find one that looks as close to your natural hair and cut as you can. Ultimately, you want to look and feel like yourself.

Birchbox: That makes sense! Any other hair tips that you learned?

Caitlin: Yes, I learned that you should wait 26 months after your treatment is done to color your hair. Even after you finish your chemotherapy, your body is still processing chemicals in your system that can cause hair color to react. For example, what would normally be a beautiful blonde, might turn out looking orange!

On Makeup

Birchbox: Now, as a self-professed glamour girl, you must have learned a thing or two about makeup tricks.

Caitlin: Oh, yes. I was never much of a primer girl, but when I was going through treatment it was a Godsend. When my skin texture got really funky, and the tone started to look off it really helped to create a smooth finish for makeup to go on betterjust like when you use it on your walls before painting.

Birchbox: And what about foundation?

Caitlin: When you're going through chemotherapy, you can have what I learned from Ramy to be called "mood skin". One day your skin might look kind of green, the next day it could look yellow, and then the next it may have a purple tint to itit's constantly changing. I found the best solution was to use a wax-based foundation stick that has a full-coverage. You need a more opaque finish to help neutralize your skin tone, and camouflage what's going on underneath. It's also great because it's easy to swipe on when you're really tired and don't feel up to putting on makeup.