Today is International Day of the Sick, an observation founded by Pope John Paul II as a day for believers to offer prayers for those who are ill. Believer or not, it is vitally important that we take time to care for those around us – including and most especially ourselves – in ill health. To this end, Caitlin Kiernan has written a moving Beauty Guide for Women with Cancer. Read on to hear some of the wise and touching things she has to say.
It was gearing up to be one of the biggest events Life & Style Weekly magazine had ever held. The Kardashian Klan had RSVP’d. So had all of Bravo’s Real Housewives, including NeNe Leakes, Countess Luann de Lesseps, and Ramona Singer. And the fashion world’s top stylists—including my friend Robert Verdi—were working the red carpet before it had even been rolled out. The Style Awards party was held to celebrate the magazine’s fall fashion issue that was dedicated to Hollywood’s most influential trendsetters. Held on the rooftop of the Dream Hotel, the party coincided with New York Fashion Week and was one of the most buzzed about events of the season. E! News was there, so was Entertainment Tonight, the New York Post, the Daily News—and a slew of other news organizations. It was set to be one of those magical New York nights.
As the magazine’s beauty director, I was responsible for writing and assigning all the beauty coverage in the magazine. It was also part of my job to report on the latest beauty trends, test new products on the market, and to interview celebrities, their glam squads, and the leading experts in the industry. Because of that, I had a hand in nominating and selecting the celebrities and influencers that were going to be featured in our special style issue. And when it came to the party, I helped get these influencers to attend. Not such an easy feat. But collectively, we pulled it off and the night had arrived without any major hitches.
Getting ready for the event was another story. By the night of the party, I was smack-dab in the middle of treatment for breast cancer. I had been diagnosed in July and by September I had already had several surgeries and two rounds of chemotherapy. While getting ready for a dressy event would normally take about an hour, now it took almost three. Chemo made my skin break out in hives and it required time and skills to hide them. Thankfully, I had years of beauty reporting under my belt so I knew how to apply foundation and concealer like a pro. My hair was another matter. I tried, several times, to curl it into sexy, beachy waves. But ever since I started losing clumps at a time, it tended to look limp and lifeless no matter what I did to it. After several frustrating attempts at styling, and close to tears, I pulled it up into a sleek topknot. I finished with a swipe of almost neon orange lipstick. I figured the bold shade, which was totally on trend, would help distract from any obvious signs of my sickness.
Once the doors opened, the room filled with the who’s who of the fashion and beauty world. I sipped on a drink and started to work the room. I talked with Khloé Kardashian and Lamar Odom, and neither seemed to notice that I was in the middle of a major health crisis. Khloé complimented my lipstick and my Jimmy Choo heels while we talked about her visiting Lamar’s children in Brooklyn. Melissa Gorga and Cindy Barshop, two of Bravo’s Real Housewives, grabbed me for an impromptu picture in the photo booth that was rented for the event. After, as we looked at the ten-plus pictures we took, Melissa commented on my glowing skin and asked who my facialist was. My answer: “I don’t have one.”
It was in that moment that I realized that nobody at the party— minus a few of my colleagues—knew I had cancer. I was standing among Hollywood’s elite makeup artists, hairstylists, fashion stylists, talent scouts, agents, and celebrities—people who are known for their looks or whose jobs it is to create a flawless aesthetic—and not one of them had a clue I was sick.
It wasn’t because I had done such a stellar job applying my concealer—although that did help. Nobody knew because I had my own notable glam squad helping me maintain my looks during cancer treatment. I had Ted Gibson telling me how to brush my thinning hair without pulling out any additional strands. I had Dr. Brian Kantor (the dentist for 50 Cent, the New York Knicks, and Penelope Cruz) keeping me stocked up on rinses to prevent the mouth sores chemo normally caused. And I had Elle Gerstein, JLo’s manicurist, giving me tips on how to keep my nails from falling out. For every physical feature that could possibly be affected by cancer treatment, I had an expert in that specialty on speed dial. And I called every one of them.
If I hadn’t been a beauty director with such incredible sources, I wouldn’t have been able to show up at the party looking so good, so “normal.” Like any good reporter, I had done research before I started treatment but there wasn’t one book, one website, one resource that had all the information I needed on how to maintain my skin, hair, nails, mouth—and even my vajajay—during cancer treatment.
For cancer patients, it’s often considered taboo to care about your looks when you should be focused on fighting for your life. While it was important to keep perspective on the health goals at hand, looking good, for me, was equally vital to my recovery. It helped me stay positive and focused on living, rather than being sick and all the possible negative outcomes that can come of it.
I can’t tell you how many times I faced scrutiny when I would inquire or talk about the aesthetic elements and side effects of my treatment. But why is it so wrong to care? Why are cancer patients made to feel vain if they want their mastectomy reconstruction results to look and feel like real breasts, or ask about losing their hair?
The fact of the matter is beauty treatments are an adjunct therapy to cancer treatments. If you look good, you feel better. Even when I was feeling like shit—if I resembled a hint of my “normal self,” it helped me get out of bed and power through the day. They say there are more important things in life than beauty and fashion but I’m here to tell you that they are just as important—if not more so—when you are sick. And why should anyone have to choose between their health or their beauty? They shouldn’t—and don’t— have to. The two are not mutually exclusive.
Maybe it’s because beauty came late in life to me, and I wasn’t ready to give it up so fast. Growing up, I was a chubby redheaded child with a face full of freckles and a precocious personality. By high school, I had discovered my inner rebel thanks to the Sex Pistols. And I did my best to channel Johnny Rotten with a neon-orange bi-level bob, ten-hole Dr. Martens, and ripped clothes held together with safety pins. I also shared his pimply skin problem too, which didn’t win me any boyfriends. By college, Madonna was my idol, so naturally push-up bras became my go-to fashion statement. I didn’t have the bust for them, but I wore them like they were my job. When I took a gig as “shooter girl” doling out shots of tequila and vodka at the Wave, a nightclub on Long Beach Island, bustiers became my uniform. It was then that I realized the power of boobs and fashion. When I graduated, I landed a job as editorial assistant in the newsroom of my hometown paper. I worked the news desk typing up the fire calls, police blotter, and obituaries. While I knew all the juicy scoops in town, I longed for a more glamorous role. On the night JLo wore that infamous slit dress to the MTV Video Music Awards, I scored an interview with the designer, Donatella Versace, and wrote up the story on deadline. It was selected as the cover. Two days later, I was promoted to the coveted job of fashion columnist.
While I loved fashion, it always felt a little cliquey to me. If you weren’t a size two or rolling in money, there were certain things that would always be off-limits. But beauty is democratic. Obsessed with Beyoncé’s limited edition Chanel bag? Good luck getting one. Love her smoky eye shadow? The look was easy to achieve—by anyone, on any budget. When I became a beauty director at a national magazine, I got to interview all the greats in the beauty world. I listened to their tips and tricks and then put them to work at home. In just a few years, I transformed into a full-fledged glamour girl. And it was just as I was feeling like I was coming into my own, achieving my potential fabulousness, that I was diagnosed with cancer. Talk about bad timing.
For the one in eight women who are diagnosed with breast cancer every year; the one in seventeen women diagnosed with lung cancer; or one in twenty-three who will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer, most of us don’t know how to adjust our beauty routines during surgery, treatment, and life after. Most of us don’t know what type of wig to shop for. Most don’t know how to care for our skin when it’s undergoing intense radiation. Why? Because there has never been a book dedicated to comprehensive beauty advice for cancer patients. Until now.
Pretty Sick: The Beauty Guide for Women with Cancer is my way of paying forward all the amazing advice, tips, and tricks that I received during my battle with breast cancer. That intel helped me look and feel better during the darkest days of my life. My hope is that by paving the way, it makes the journey less bumpy for you.
This article is extracted from Pretty Sick: The Beauty Guide for Women with Cancer by Caitlin M. Kiernan