Cancer and its treatment cause big changes in how patients look. Sometimes a tumor is visible and directly alters the patient’s appearance. Some cancer surgeries are disfiguring. Chemotherapy causes hair loss. Chronic steroid use can change the way a patient’s face looks. Cyclosporine, used to prevent and treat graft-versus-host disease, causes hair growth in unusual places.
These changes can be even more profound when the patient is a child. Radiation causes bones to stop growing, so as the rest of the child grows, the irradiated bones do not, and scoliosis or other changes can develop. Chronic steroid use impairs growth. Bone marrow transplantation and brain radiation cause significant hormonal changes whose importance is magnified in the developing child or adolescent.
Adolescence is a time when appearance is terribly important and often central to a person’s developing self-image. Imagine, then, how hard it can be to be diagnosed with cancer and then be treated for it when you’re that age – when all you want to do is fit in!
What can be done about this? One important source of help is people who have been through it before. One woman, Marianne Kelly, started a program in Baltimore called Image Recovery Centers. Ms. Kelly was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1987, and that experience, along with the experience of losing a sibling to leukemia and having a daughter diagnosed with leukemia, led her to work with cancer patients to help them maintain a positive self-image despite the changes caused by their diagnosis and the treatments they need. I send my patients to the Image Recovery Center at our hospital as often as I can.
Another source of support can be the stories of patients who cope particularly well with the effects of their cancer treatment. My patient M, for example, dyed her hair purple (and sometimes pink or blue) as it grew back after she lost it during chemotherapy.
My favorite story, though, is about Warren (not his real name). Warren was 9 when he was diagnosed with retinoblastoma, cancer arising in the back of the eye. Most retinoblastoma patients are infants, and Warren is the oldest retinoblastoma patient I have ever cared for. When he was diagnosed, his tumor was so advanced that there was no hope of saving the vision in his right eye, so it was removed, a procedure known as “enucleation.” After healing from the surgery, Warren received a prosthetic eye. The prosthesis was so real looking, that one of my colleagues had to ask Warren which eye he had lost!
But the best part of the story is not the quality of his glass eye, but what Warren did with it. The first summer he had the eye, he spent a lot of time swimming in his pool. While other kids in the neighborhood would toss a penny into the pool to dive after it, what did Warren and his friends dive for? You guessed it – his eye!
How’s THAT for making the best of what life gives you?
(Follow this link to see how easy it is to remove a prosthetic eye)
For more information about coping with the effects of cancer treatment, click here for beauty and comfort tips from the Image Recovery Center at Johns Hopkins.
The Story of D
One of My Patients is Famous