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The “C” Word: Courage In The Face of Cancer

How Esthetic Oncology Can Help

Cancer came knocking on Diana Spagnuolo’s door just before Christmas two years ago, at 52 years old, when she found an ominous lump in her breast. It was a cyst, but it came along with another often-overlooked sign of breast cancer, an inverted nipple. Subsequent tests revealed devastating news; she had inflammatory breast cancer, a rare and aggressive form of the disease that invades skin, milk ducts and lymph nodes. It usually starts with the reddening and swelling of the breast instead of a distinct lump and spreads quickly, sometimes within a few hours. Spagnuolo warns that “because inflammatory breast cancer is not a lump, it is very often misdiagnosed.”

That year, she was one of over 220,000 Canadians diagnosed with cancer. The Canadian Cancer Society expects the numbers to continue growing as Canada’s population expands and ages.

“I had eight rounds of chemo; a mastectomy of my left breast and 22 lymph nodes removed,” recalls Spagnuolo. Twenty-five rounds of radiation followed. “Chemo was difficult, but not as bad as I thought,” she admits. In the process, Spagnuolo lost her hair and her skin became fragile and irritated. “I was mostly concerned about staying healthy, more than my looks,” she explains. “But, lots of people stare at you – even though I wore a hat and sometimes a wig. More than anything it was very, very annoying.”

The chemo took a toll on her skin, leaving it with dark blotches, redness and bumps. After searching for a spa that specializes in esthetic oncology, Spagnuolo found the Redwood Medi Spa and Wellness Centre in Toronto. The award-winning spa includes esthetic oncology along with a range of advanced non-surgical skin treatments and modalities.

Redwood’s president and founder, Maggie Guo says that oncological estheticians need to understand the impact of cancer, physically and psychologically, so they can communicate better with cancer clients. “This requires estheticians to have an abundance of knowledge in understanding cancer, immunology and lymphatic systems – as well as understanding common anti-cancer drug therapy, radiation therapy, chemotherapy and their side effects on skin, hair and nails.”

On top of that, Guo says, spa technicians need to comprehend cosmetic chemistry and ingredients in skincare, such as the known carcinogens, toxins and irritants. Her oncological clients have skin that is very dry, sensitive and fragile, and could get irritated and disrupted by the physical exfoliation process or active ingredients like retinol and AHAs.

In such a highly specialized field, it’s no wonder there are only a few spas in Canada that offer esthetic oncology – despite rising numbers of cancer patients.

“Every cancer client will present unique circumstances,” Guo explains. “We offer the Redwood Personalized Oncology Facial to hydrate, relax and revitalize the skin. We also offer O2 lift, which is an acid-free, sulfate-free organic enzymatic facial peel with oxygenating masque, to energize skin cells, improve circulation, speed healing and promote the cell’s natural regenerative abilities.”

At Redwood, estheticians follow a safe treatment protocol including pre-treatment consultation, treatment techniques and post-treatment follow-up, and they are especially vigilant when it comes to skin compromised by cancer.

“We need to recognize that each cancer client presents unique circumstances, and we might need to make necessary modifications to ensure their safety and comfort,” Guo explains. “We also need to sense how to emotionally connect with them, build their trust and treat them with ultimate compassion and care.”

For Spagnuolo, a visit to the spa eased her feelings of anxiety. “My facial was most definitely an emotional boost. I felt so relaxed and emotionally energized once I left Redwood, which is tough when you’re in chemo and cancer treatments for months.”

According to Mórag Currin, a global expert in cancer-specific esthetics and founder of Oncology Training International (OTI), “For someone with cancer, there’s a lot of depression, anxiety and stress around treatment, concerns over whether they are going to survive, side effects and how they’re going to feel. They need a safe space and nurturing touch more than anything during this time.” The Mórag Currin Method of Oncology Esthetics (MCMOE) is used by OTI experts to train thousands of students each year in over 14 countries.

While initially there were concerns over patient safety and liability, today there’s growing recognition that spas can help. OTI works with insurance companies in developing training modules for treating oncology clients. “Insurance companies became more accepting of what we were doing, because it was quite the opposite to things like laser and derma-blading and anything that’s invasive. It’s completely non-invasive,” she explains.

Among a range of courses, OTI students learn about the side effects of chemotherapy, like those caused by a drug for treating melanoma which leads to loss of pigmentation in the skin and hair. It’s a catch-22, explains Currin, because the loss of these pigments, which are a natural way for the body to protect against sun damage, ironically exposes the skin to even more melanoma. The drug’s effects on hair leaves brows almost invisible, so the esthetician needs to learn about the best types and styles of makeup.

Beyond cancer, Currin suggests that the industry would be well served to understand the impact of other diseases, like diabetes and heart disease. Knowledge of these afflictions enables estheticians to offer the most effective treatments. “For example, somebody who’s on corticosteroids can also bruise and bleed very easily. So, it is important for us to be asking the right questions.”

For spas interested in offering oncological esthetics, Currin suggests they focus on offering their clients relaxation, symptom relief and appearance recovery. She’d love to see more oncology estheticians in the industry. It would have made the search that much easier for cancer survivors like Spagnuolo, who explains, “Cancer treatments are difficult; if you can find someone who can help you feel better and support you, I would highly recommend it.”

Jana Manolakos
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