Though doctors have long sought to understand and treat the physical symptoms of cancer, less attention has been paid to the deep emotional impact of the disease—something Sherry Abbott hopes to change.
In 1992, the successful cosmetics executive was diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer and began aggressive treatment. Although the physical symptoms were daunting, she was caught off-guard by the emotional turmoil of the experience—debilitating fear, anxiety, and the heartbreak and trauma of finding out she could never bear children.
“From feeling betrayed by my own body to the grief of never being able to have a family of my own, the fears, uncertainties, and losses that come with a cancer diagnosis might have been the most difficult for me,” says Abbott.
“Even decades later, the cancer blues continue to grip me as I live with the physical and emotional effects of the cancer and the treatment I received.”
Eventually Abbott won her fight with cancer and today, 25 years later, she is known as the longest-living survivor of advanced small-cell ovarian cancer in the world. The experience opened her eyes to gaps in the system of care, and she now devotes her life to helping other women in their cancer fight.
As executive director of the Canadian Cosmetic Toiletry and Fragrance Association, Abbott helped launch the Look Good, Feel Better program, which helps women manage the effects that cancer and its treatment can have on their appearance. The program is offered at 118 hospitals and cancer care facilities across Canada.
On the surface the program is a free, two-hour workshop where small groups of women with cancer learn simple cosmetic techniques, such as how to properly fit a wig, how to brighten sallow skin, or pencil in eyebrows that have fallen out due to chemotherapy. But beyond beauty, it acts as a support system where women can share information, receive compassionate guidance from program volunteers, and boost their spirits as they face a painful reality.
“For the first time since finding a lump, I was sitting with a group of women who were going through exactly what I was going through and feeling what I was feeling,” says cancer patient Cynthia Mulligan on the Look Good, Feel Better website. “You don’t have to protect their feelings or hide your pain.”
The visible signs of cancer treatment can manifest in many ways: hair loss, weight loss or gain, swelling, skin lesions, dark circles—the list goes on. These symptoms can be disturbing for patients as well as their loved ones, with some patients even drawing stares from strangers, says Abbott. So learning methods to conceal or minimize these side effects can have a profound impact on a woman’s psyche.
“They end up realizing that if they can better manage the way they look and feel, they apply those learnings to other aspects of their journey,” Abbot explains. “So they really leave [the program] empowered.”
The emotional distress caused by cancer and its treatment—what Abbott calls the “cancer blues”—has a real impact on a person’s ability to fight and endure the disease, some research suggests.
An article published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology last year joined a growing chorus recommending that all cancer patients and survivors be evaluated for symptoms of depression and anxiety at periodic times across the trajectory of care.
“Failure to identify and treat anxiety and depression in the context of cancer increases the risk for poor quality of life, and potentially increased disease-related morbidity and mortality,” the article stated.
Abbott hopes the Look Good, Feel Better program will continue to expand, while helping to raise awareness about the emotional toll of the disease and promoting more holistic treatment for cancer patients and survivors. She knows all too well how regaining a sense of normalcy can make all the difference in the darkest moments.
“When I looked in the mirror and I saw that I looked more like myself, it did give me the encouragement I needed on a lot of days when I was pretty down.”