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How Breast Cancer Changed My Definition of Beauty

By Joelle Scales, Cosmetic Coordinator at Schweiger Dermatology Group

 

Joelle Scales 2020

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. About 1 in 8 U.S. women (about 13%) will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. It is the most diagnosed cancer among American women and became the most diagnosed globally as of 2021. While we associate most breast cancers with the genetic mutation BRCA1 and BRCA2, about 85% of women who are diagnosed have no family history of breast cancer. That’s a hard pill to swallow. It was a personal hard pill to swallow for me in 2011 when my mother was diagnosed at age 55, but an even harder one when I was diagnosed at the age of 37 in 2020.

I have had the distinct honor and privilege over the last 15 years to be working in the cosmetic aesthetic industry. I am surrounded daily by beautiful patients and coworkers. I get to interact every day with patients who are looking to feel better about how they look, not changing the way they look. I am inspired by all the stories I hear from patients about how we have made their lives better by increasing their self-esteem from just a touch of Botox or laser resurfacing for acne scarring. Now, full disclosure, I have been consistently receiving injectables like Botox and fillers, laser resurfacing, chemical peels, etc. for more than a decade. I take pride in taking good care of my skin. I am especially proud of being an ambassador of the amazing work of our talented Schweiger Dermatology Group providers!

But things came to a screeching halt for me on September 8th, 2020. I was sitting in the lunchroom in our office when I received the phone call I will never forget. “I am sorry, but you have breast cancer”. Sadly, I lost my mother 5 years ago after a long hard fight. I saw firsthand how cancer and the corresponding treatments wreak havoc on your body. The color depletes from your skin, the texture and quality changes–let’s not even talk about the effects of radiation dermatitis. You look like a bald, grey zombie-like shell of a human. To me, my mother was always beautiful no matter what, but I was not prepared for what was about to happen to me.

Chemo time!

After weeks of scans and tests I was diagnosed with stage 2B Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. After meeting with the most amazing team of oncologists and surgeons, I was given an excellent prognosis with an aggressive treatment plan. Chemotherapy began about 3 weeks after my diagnosis. Having experienced the process with my mother, I thought I knew what I was in for. I knew that I was going to lose my hair. I made peace with that from the start. I tried to hide this from my coworkers and patients as best I could, so it was time for wig shopping! That was one of the more amusing parts of the process- I sadly cannot rock blonde hair. I found something close to my natural hair style, so my patients wouldn’t be too thrown off. I was trying to remain as normal as humanly possible…until all the steroids wore off and I felt like I was run over by a truck.

I could build a new me with this!

It took about two weeks for my hair to noticeably start falling out—to the point where clumps were coming out with every brush stroke. Despite all the support from my friends, family, and coworkers, it was the first time I looked at myself and thought I was no longer beautiful. I didn’t even recognize who I was looking at in the mirror.

While I was adjusting to this new do, my skin decided to go haywire simultaneously. Not only did I break out like a hormonal 13-year-old, but my skin became so incredibly sensitive it was painful. All my regular go-to treatments were off limits—no lasers, peels, or any of my coveted skincare regimen.

New Do!

The only products I could use were a gentle cleanser, gentle moisturizer, and my physical sunscreen. Oh, and my regularly scheduled Botox and filler treatments were absolutely a no-go. I had a really hard time accepting these changes. How could I possibly educate patients on the treatments that we offer to improve and maintain their skin when I looked like a monster? Thankfully I wear a mask all day so I could hide my breakouts and raw skin. By the end of the day my skin was so chapped from being covered I didn’t know what to do. All I could do was keep it basic and gentle. Soap free was the way to go with my cleansers so any moisture I had left wasn’t getting stripped away. Ceramide and hyaluronic acid moisturizers also became my new besties keeping my skin hydrated without breaking me out. As always, sunscreen was an absolute must.

Eye lashes coming off in clumps

At least I still could do my eye makeup. If that’s all people are going to see, at least I can still play that up! I still had my eyebrows and notoriously long lashes, right??…HA! Not for long!

At first, they started coming out in clumps. I noticed them coming off more and more when I took my eye makeup off at night. The brows basically followed suit. It was only a matter of two or three weeks until the lashes were completely gone. All I was left with was a beet red face, bald head, no lashes, non-existent brows, and wrinkles for days! Could this possibly get any worse?

Post Chemo

Could I look any more horrific?

Thankfully my face started to recover a few weeks after ending chemotherapy. Once I received the blessing of my oncologist to start using my skincare products again and received approval to get Botox I was over the moon! I started to feel like me again! Interestingly, I never fully lost all my hair during chemotherapy. It started to slowly grow throughout the whole process.

Few weeks after chemo

I felt like a Chia Pet, just watching the sprouts slowly grow. Despite all of this and the fact that I started to feel like myself again, in the six weeks following my surgery I was about to embark on what I consider the worst part of the entire experience- radiation therapy.

I received 28 treatments of radiation therapy to my left breast where the cancer was located and to my underarm where the cancer was in the lymph nodes. Radiation therapy is super quick- I think each treatment was around five to six minutes. I had to go Monday through Friday for almost six weeks. The treatment itself is not painful. My radiation oncologist prepared me for what my skin was going to experience. He said it was going to feel like “the worst sunburn of my life”. I can say with unequivocal certainty that doesn’t even begin to describe the pain. I won’t even talk about the fatigue that I am still recovering from- that’s nothing compared to what happened to my skin. It took about two and a half weeks for it to start getting irritated.

Effects of radiation therapy

I had to pretreat my skin with special steroid cream and constantly keep it moisturized. At first, I honestly thought I avoided this part of the process but like my girl Miley said, “it came in like a wrecking ball”. My skin turned an ungodly shade of purple that I’ve never seen. I was covered in sterile dressings and constantly applying steroid cream and moisturizer. There were days where my scrub top would gently rub against my skin, and I would be reduced to tears. It took a few months for the darkness to fade, but there is still a difference in the actual color of my skin vs. the area that was radiated. I am not sure if it will ever return to its original color, but at least the pain is gone.

It has now been over 1 full year since my diagnosis. I can happily report that I am in a state of what they call “no evidence of disease.” I am thankful to my team of doctors who worked tirelessly to save my life. I am one of the lucky ones, and each day I fight to live in honor of those who fought to the bitter end, like my mom. I learned a lot about myself throughout this process. This experience changed my perception about the word beauty.

Joelle Scales 2021- New and Improved

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines beauty as “the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit”. Obviously physical beauty brings pleasure to the senses, but I spent the last year focusing on the latter part of that definition. I had the realization that if I was going to get through this, I had to change the way my mind processed things. Yes, my physical appearance changed- and it was hard to deal with. I can’t explain what it’s like watching it happen, but it truly is unnerving and it’s just plain upsetting. Am I vain? Maybe, but I take pride in taking care of my appearance, and that is ok. There is nothing wrong with wanting to look better to feel good about yourself. I was never chasing an appearance that wasn’t possible or unrealistic. Any aesthetic procedure that I ever had either enhanced a physical quality that I loved about myself or improved something that I didn’t like (like all the pigmentation that started to appear as I inch closer to the age of 40).

What became important to me and is still important now is finding the beauty in every moment I live and every interaction I have. Some may think that sounds cliché and hippie-ish, but this whole process taught me that you can’t take any moment for granted. Even though I was nowhere close to death, just having been diagnosed with something that took my mom and takes so many women each day was a wake-up call. I’ve learned that life is precious. Moments are precious. Doing absolutely nothing sitting on the couch is precious. Taking care of patients is precious. Giving someone the ability to feel good about themselves is precious. Having the ability to keep moving is precious. I have learned that it is important to value every moment that you have and making the absolute best out of it- whatever that best may be. For me, the best is finding the beauty in every person I meet and every moment I’m here.

About Schweiger Dermatology Group

Schweiger Dermatology Group was founded to help make excellent dermatology care accessible throughout the Northeast. In 2010, Dr. Eric Schweiger started the practice with a single location in Midtown Manhattan. When he saw the need for high-quality dermatology care that did not require weeks or months of waiting to see a qualified provider, his vision of a multi-location practice was born.

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