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October 24, 2018

What My Friend's Cancer Taught Me About Good Skin and Inner Beauty

Life has a knack for making you remember exactly what you were doing at the most important moments. I was laying out, reading in my favorite grassy nook overlooking the East River in NYC when I got a phone call from Damaris, a friend and former coworker. In a world where texting is practically everyone's main source of communication, I had a gut feeling that this wouldn't just be a simple catch-up. And, unfortunately, I was right: Damaris was calling to confide in me about her breast cancer diagnosis.

The good news: Detected early, treatment was an optionand it was an immediate yes when Damaris asked me to accompany her to chemotherapy appointments. I had a flexible schedule that allowed me to attend nearly every Friday afternoon appointment. The missed summer Fridays were worth it: While Damaris and I were close beforehand, going through such an experience deepened our friendship.

We spent a lot of time watching Jerry Springerbecause what better way to be distracted from the beeps of machines administering bags of chemotherapy medication and saline than watching someone else's trainwreck? The nurses in this particular wing were so patient and friendly, always checking in on how Damaris felt while simultaneously ready to gossip about Bravo reality TV. Once, when waking up from a nap, Damaris even groggily mentioned that it was almost like our previous girls night happy hours. (Just replace the wine with water bottles and the bar stools with hospital chairs.)

Being able to chat about mindless shows or inexpensive Upper East Side happy hours with the nurses had a positive effect on Damaris. She would often mention how much she liked them, and noted that the fact that she could create a semblance of normalcy was very welcome during that time.

That sense of normalcy goes for how you look, too. I noticed a patient who always wore lipstick to her appointments; another day, there were cupcakes and leis to celebrate a patients last day of treatment, during which everyone in her room was more dressed up than usual. Watching my friend and other patients navigate their new appearance was challenging and humbling.

I chatted with Damaris to learn more about how her beauty attitude changed throughout her treatment process. Here, she shares her experience in her own words:

What was the biggest impact on you physically during the treatment process?

You would think the hair loss is whats the most shocking, but for me it was my skin. You can wrap or hide hair loss with a scarf or wig if you want to; you cant replace your skin. You also dont realize the importance of your nose hair until its gone. I was getting nose bleeds and a constant runny nose because it was no longer there to protect and prevent them.

What was your skin like during chemotherapy?

My face, cheeks, even underneath the earlobes were so dry, thin, and almost crepe-like. I had dry eyes, arms, elbows, hands. Everything was dry and super-thin, there was scaling in the beginningthis got better progressively.

What products did/do you use to care for your skin?

My go-to face wash is Cetaphil and Oil of Olay Complete All Day Moisture Lotion. I also use witch hazel. Im an old-school woman; I tend to stick to the same products.

After your diagnosis, did you research and/or switch to using natural skincare products?

I definitely tried to in the beginning, especially when I began seeing the changes in my face [during chemotherapy] treatment. I was super paranoid. You change because you dont know what could have caused it. I tried and still try to use organic or natural products that dont test on animals. I also switched to using only 100% cotton linens and towels.

What, if any, natural treatments or products did you try for these skin issues?

I tried everything: oatmeal, milk, aloe, coconut oil, shea butter, glycerin. For products, I used and continue using moisturizer with SPF. Avne Thermal Spring Water made my face feel refreshed, while their XeraCalm Lipid Replenishing Cream and Cicalfate Restorative Skin Cream helped soothed my skin.

Did having cancer affect your views on beauty and your appearance?

When I looked in the mirror, I was overwhelmed. By no means was I vain, but when you look at yourself in the mirror, you think, Who even is this person? But it reminded me not to sweat the small stuff. I am still here. There are many women who are not as lucky and lost this battle.

-Crystal Fenton


Alexis Bridenbaugh