According to some people, I’m not supposed to be worried about my looks right now. I’m supposed to focus on my health. I’m supposed to be grateful that I’ve survived my cancer diagnosis and treatment so far. To care about my looks is just vain and ungrateful, isn’t it? But here’s the thing: I remember, during chemo, peering into the mirror and marveling at the “chemo glow” that all those lovely poisons had given my skin.
Ten months after treatment, however, I looked like I’d felt the entire time during treatment: hot garbage. My skin was lax, my eyes hollow and the wrinkles around my eyes looked like crumpled paper. It didn’t feel good. I was prepared to not look younger than I was, but I wasn’t prepared to look older. As the aging of my skin really settled in, I stared gaining weight, too.
I wasn’t coming out of this as I’d envisioned. We’re shown these expectations of post-cancer life wherein we burst forth with this sparkling supernova of newness. We’re fire-worked survivors who drink champagne at noon on a Tuesday, eat off the good China every day and manifest new careers while training for a marathon.
If these women exist, I envy them.
For me, everything happened backward. As I healed, I became less confident. I felt bad about myself, which was alien to me. I started refusing to go out to any of the places I’d dreamed of going once I’d finished chemotherapy. I would get excited at the prospect of going out, only to feel defeated as I passed the mirror, inevitably calling up friends and canceling plans. Even when I did muster the bandwidth to go out in public, I was so incredibly uncomfortable, I felt like I was choking.
You might find it silly. Like a few close friends of mine, maybe you think I was making a mountain out of a molehill. But guess what? It’s my molehill, my mountain. The last thing I needed was anyone’s judgment on how I could get over this and get on with my life. I wasn’t upset that I looked “old,” I was upset that the treatment that was adding years to my life also took so much away from me. After all, no one disapproved when I had surgeries to remove and replace my breasts or remove my uterus. Wanting to fix my face, which is seen much more often than my breasts, shouldn’t be a big deal.
Thankfully, one of my treatment specialists, Dr. Jennifer Beatty of The Breast Place, realized that many of her patients were struggling with their confidence after the changes brought about by living through and with cancer treatment; she created an in-house clinic, EmPower, dedicated to making her patients look, and thereby feel, our best.
EmPower’s clinicians have gently guided me back to a place where I’m beginning to feel like myself. I’m not 100% there yet, but I’m getting there.
“So, how’s the anxiety been?” asked EmPower’s Whitney Huff, WHNP, as I settle into my chair for a slathering of numbing cream.
We chatted a little about my fears concerning keeping the cancer beast at bay, how I’m working to feel safe again in my own body. As the numbing cream works its magic, the machine, Cutera’s “Secret RF,” whirs to life. A series of beeps, boops and clicks and we’re ready to go.
I’m about to undergo a process in which, bit by bit, sections of my face, neck and décolleté will be stamped by a hand piece consisting of 64 tiny pins as fractional radio frequency sends heat and energy into the deeper layers of my skin. The small amount of damage done to my skin by the needles will trigger a healing effect and call on my body’s collagen to regenerate the skin.
Sounds like torture, doesn’t it? Truthfully, save for a few “spicy” areas near my lips and on my chest, it’s quite painless. This is my fourth session, spaced four to six weeks apart, the recommended starting point.
Since I’ve started, I’ve seen a drastic improvement from my post-cancer treatment skin. I haven’t felt the need to use much Botox, any fillers or other treatments, though nothing is off the table.
Look, I don’t expect these treatments to repair psychological issues. Getting zapped, injected and pinched and poked can’t cure those fears in my psyche that are so deeply planted right now. They can, however, help banish the specter of all that I’ve been through these past two years.
With a healthy, nonchemo related glow, firmer skin and less obvious wrinkles, I use a fraction of the cosmetics I was using. And though I still show signs of a life well-lived, I don’t look ill.
Everyone meets the challenges of their medical treatments differently. You are not required to “be pretty” for anyone. You’re also not required to give in and submit to side effects of your treatments. There are resources out there that can help.
Do your homework. Check out the pros and cons of any treatments you’re considering. RealSelf.com is a helpful resource for that. Investigate and interview providers, too. Take your time to get an assessment before committing to a procedure. While most of these aesthetic treatments can be “undone” in some fashion, it’s better to have a good experience right out the gate.
By Amy Gesell