Each time Karen Hauser’s cancer returns, she readies herself for the hair loss, cracked skin and emotional turmoil that inevitably follows.
“You feel like you’re losing your womanhood somehow,” said Hauser, who was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1988. “There are so many times with cancer when it’s all encompassing, it takes your whole personality away.”
While she was accustomed to sterile medical procedures, the stigma of undressing in front of other people led to isolation and a loss of self-confidence.
“It’s hard to know how to present yourself when you’ve lost your hair from radiation,” she said.
It wasn’t until a friend told Hauser about oncology aesthetics, spas that cater to cancer patients, that she booked a massage for the first time in 25 years.
“Initially, I thought thank goodness you don’t have to explain yourself when you get to the spa,” she said. “You’re surrounded by people who know what’s going on. If your towel falls open or you want a head massage, it’s not a big deal.”
As more than 186,000 Canadians are diagnosed with cancer every year, cancer-related beauty and self-care industries are growing rapidly.
The Spa Magnolia has been offering oncology aesthetics to mostly women since May, and the business is already seeing about 20 clients per month, said owner Paula Veenema.
“Massage and facial is what we book most frequently, simply because touch just feels so good after undergoing cancer therapy,” she said. “A lot of what we see is severely dehydrated, very sensitive skin.”
Certification involves training in the effects of chemotherapy and radiation on the body, massage techniques and sensitivity training. There are currently around 10 certified oncology aestheticians in B.C.
The practice isn’t openly endorsed by the Canadian Cancer Society, but self-care activities like massage are an “extremely important of the cancer journey,” said Dr. Sandra Kruecki, director of Information and Support with the Canadian Cancer Society.
“We welcome services that provide respite, relaxation and self-care to cancer patients and their families,” Kruecki said.
The American Cancer Society is also beginning to promote self-care with its new Look Good, Feel Better campaign, an online guide that provides beauty, skin and nail care tips for men, women and teens. The program aims to improve self-esteem and quality of life during cancer treatment.
Veenema intentionally keeps treatment costs for cancer patients about 20 per cent lower than normal spa treatments, and said she’d like to see the service more readily available to the 838,000 Canadians with cancer.
“We’d love to talk to anyone going through treatment and work something out,” Veenema said. “We’d hate to think this is out of reach for someone who needs it.”
Hauser plans to book another massage soon to get her mind off a pending reconstructive surgery.
“There are so many younger women now that cancer is affecting,” she said. “Being at the spa, you completely forget everything except being a princess for an hour or two. It really should be mandatory.”