A cancer diagnosis and the resulting treatment can change people’s lives in many ways. Commonly known effects include fatigue, taste preferences and even relationships. But, there are other, less well-known side effects that can cause distress too, and it can be difficult to find creative resources.
When Caitlin Kiernan was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012, she was the Beauty Director with Life and Style. The cancer treatment dried out her skin, causing dark patches, acne and hives. She reached out to the cosmetic industry experts for tips to hide and cover them, but she also started compiling her own beauty secrets. Caitlin created a capacious resource for women with cancer and in remission: from skin care to hair care, wig shopping to nail maintenance, and makeup trick and much more. Read our interview with Caitlin Kiernan, the author of Pretty Sick: The Beauty Guide for Women with Cancer.
• What prompted you to write Pretty Sick?
After I got my diagnosis, I continued to work through my 5 surgeries, chemotherapy and reconstruction. As my cancer treatment revved up and the side effects began to take hold of my body, I began looking for ways to care for my skin, hair, nails, etc. As a journalist, I am a master researcher, yet I was shocked that there wasn’t one book, one website, one resource that had the information that I needed. (And the web can be a scary place with lots of unreliable, inaccurate information.) So, I turned to experts and sources that I interviewed for the magazine for help. For every body part that would be effected, I had an expert on speed dial, and I called on every one of them – leading dermatologists, scar experts, celebrity hair stylists, makeup artist, gynecologist, and dentists. The list goes on and on. They helped me minimize and, in some cases, avoid the harsh side effects I was experiencing. Toward the end of my treatment, I realized how blessed I was to have such help and decided to put all the tips and advice I received into a book to help other women with cancer.
• How do you compare your editing and writing roles before and after cancer?
Before I got sick, I wrote stories about beauty trends and new product launches. After dealing with a major health crisis, my drive in life became sharing my cancer journey and helping make that road less bumpy for women traveling it after me. I am back at a magazine writing trend pieces, but it’s just to pay my rent. My true passion is using my writing to help other patients and survivors. It gives my life a sense of purpose and a deeper meaning.
• What are the biggest challenges faced by those undergoing cancer treatment (on physical appearance and else)?
Well, cancer is a unique disease in that it is the side effects of cancer treatment, and not cancer itself, that takes it from being a private experience to a very public one. The minute you lose your hair, break out in cystic acne, or show up with ‘mood skin,’ (when your skin changes different colors from one day to the next), the entire world becomes aware of your health crisis. It is hard enough to face the day when you are grappling both with your life expectancy and a body that is changing radically and quickly. It keeps getting harder when you have to meet the knowing stares from every stranger on the street (and everywhere else). Cancer is a health crisis but it’s also an identity crisis. Providing a patient/survivor with advice, tips and product suggestions that enables them look a bit like their “normal,” “healthy” self, help empowers them with confidence and courage to stay engaged in their lives. I say it in my book; beauty treatments are an adjunct therapy to cancer treatments. When you look good, you feel better.
• What specific advice would you have for a caregiver? How can s/he help best?
My answer is two-fold:
Being a caretaker is the toughest job. It can be exhausting, overwhelming, heartbreaking and rewarding all at the same time. So, the most important thing is to care for yourself first. It’s important to stay emotionally centered and physically strong – and the only way to do that is to take time for yourself to get exercise, eat properly and laugh (as much as you can). You won’t be able to help if you get sick or emotionally spent.
My second piece of advice is this: Just show up. Your physical presence alone sends a strong message that you are there to support your loved one in this fight. You don’t need to try and reassure them that everything is going to be okay (it might not be), or try and help them work through their feelings. In fact, you shouldn’t. Instead, cook a meal, bring them a pair of cozy pajamas or slippers, drive them to appointments, and just spend time with them. When I was sick, my dear friend Jesse drove three hours from Philly to my apartment in New York to binge watch bad TV with me. We didn’t talk about my illness, or how scared and sad I was. Instead, she sat with me so that I could be distracted and relaxed. And it was exactly what I needed.
• Critics call your book “an ultimate resource for cancer patients to look their best when undergoing cancer treatment and in remission.” Comments? How else would you like your book to be received?
I wrote Pretty Sick to pay forward all my blessings and help other women battling cancer. If my book helps or empowers one woman, then that is the best reception I could have asked for. Anything else is just an extra blessing and I am grateful for it all.