Self-image’s effect on health and recovery is a topic filled with anecdotal evidence but few data. Nonetheless, doctors and nurses are finding that paying attention to what might be seen as superficial concerns — hair and makeup — has a positive effect on patients, with beauty regimes being bright spots in what can be a dreary journey through radiation and other therapies. Because of these perceived benefits, programs focused on cosmetic solutions are spreading.
Andrew Thompson, who teaches clinical psychology at the University of Sheffield in England, does research on the ways people adjust to what he calls “appearance-altering conditions.” Exploring patients’ psychological reactions, he suggests, may lead to interventions that can ease their distress.
The Image Recovery Center takes a concrete approach to image problems, as does the Look Good . . . Feel Better program of the American Cancer Society. In 2002 the program released findings of a survey showing that “86 percent of women cancer patients said that looking good helps them feel better and gives them more confidence to cope with their disease.”
“I’ve heard patients say, ‘I absolutely feel ugly. I don’t want to look at myself. When I look in the mirror I don’t see the same person,’ ” said Marianne Kelly, who founded the first Image Recovery Center 19 years ago at Baltimore’s Union Memorial Hospital.
Salons throughout the world are offering more and more services tailored to those struggling with the effects of cancer. Hospitals are forming partnerships with local salons to serve their patients. Wig salons are tailoring their services.
The Look Good . . . Feel Better program offers free monthly sessions in most Washington area hospitals
. The group sessions offer cancer patients beauty techniques, videos and online tips. The nationwide program has volunteer hairstylists, cosmetologists, wigmakers, etc., who make periodic appearances.
Kelly is a licensed cosmetologist, but she came to the idea of her program in a personal way. No stranger to cancer — as a child she lost a sister to leukemia and then saw her own daughter develop the disease, from which she recovered — Kelly learned that she had a brain tumor soon after her daughter fell ill.
After 15 hours of brain surgery, she awoke to face 18 frustrating months of rehabilitation, relearning how to walk and feed herself. It was the changes in her looks, however, that troubled Kelly the most.