Breast cancer patient Tara Monteleone-McGinn is in the middle of undergoing chemotherapy treatments. She frequently experiences emotionally and physically draining days, and yet she has kept her physical appearance a top priority.
Monteleone-McGinn, 43, gets help from family and friends and the Image Recovery Center in Pembroke Pines.
The center, part of Memorial Hospital West, helps cancer patients adjust to the physical changes after undergoing chemotherapy, radiation therapy or surgery. It’s like a spa, with specialized services: wig fittings, organic manicures, therapeutic massages, facials and makeup.
“We’ve had medications for things like nausea and diarrhea, but for a long time we didn’t have anything specific to recommend for the emotional hit and the physical image changes,” said Dr. Aruna Mani of the Memorial Cancer Institute.
There are two things that hit hard when a woman is diagnosed with cancer, says Mani: the emotional impact of the diagnosis and the hair loss.
“If you can get though those two things, then you can make it through the physical side effects,’’ said Mani, who specializes in working with breast cancer patients.
That was the case for Monteleone-McGinn, a stay-at-home mom.
“You take these things that are not so good in your life and they turn out to be blessings,” said Monteleone-McGinn of Fort Lauderdale.
She has learned to wear a wig that was specially matched to her hair before losing it to chemotherapy. People have frequently confused her wig for her natural hair, she said.
“Shaving my hair was one of those ‘getting your wind knocked out of your sails’ days,” Monteleone-McGinn said. “But I’m learning how to wear a wig. They are not as glamorous as I thought it was going to be, but it’s still me underneath.”
Hair replacement for complete or partial hair loss is one of the center’s most popular services. When women arrive for a consultation, they can choose from numerous wig styles and colors, guided by a stylist.
For the women who don’t feel comfortable in a wig, scarves and hats are also available at the center.
Davie resident Carey Herrington goes to the Image Recovery Center weekly to receive an acupuncture session.
“I come here to make me feel happy,” said Herrington, 51, a breast cancer survivor who was getting a manicure and pedicure on a recent Wednesday. “It makes me feel better. They understand. It’s a way of life here.”
Over the years, Herrington dyed her hair with all natural products, and has also undergone two wig fittings.
Herrington, an occupational therapist, always buys her beauty products at the center, since everything sold is organic and chemical-free.
“It’s a one-stop shop. It’s a place for hope and healing,” said Lori Kidd, manager at the Image Recovery Center.
“I’ve had women cry just to get a breast. Some women didn’t even know there was such thing as a prosthesis. They’ve worn socks and stockings for like 10 years stuffed in their bras because they didn’t know,” she said. “You put them in a prosthesis, they see themselves and they just cry.”
In addition to the prosthesis, the center offers stick-on nipples, specialized bras, bathing suits and compression garments to prevent lymphedema.
The Image Recovery Center was founded in 1993 at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore and later expanded into a national program. The Pembroke Pines center, attached to the Breast Cancer Center at Memorial Hospital West, opened in 2008. It is open to anyone, including people who are not going through cancer treatment.
Another nationwide program helping women with cancer is Look Good Feel Better, a program run by the American Cancer Society that teaches beauty techniques and helps manage the appearance-related side effects of cancer treatment.
The program, which puts women into small groups with a licensed cosmetologist, is free and available at numerous hospitals and cancer centers including Baptist Hospital, Jackson Memorial, Mercy, North Shore Medical Center and Palmetto General in Miami-Dade, and Broward General, Cleveland Clinic, Holy Cross, Coral Springs Medical Center, Memorial, UM Sylvester at Deerfield and Westside Regional in Broward.
“It’s a small, hands-on class with usually no more than six to eight women. Each woman gets a free bag of products,” said Janet Khamsi, area coordinator for the Look Good Feel Better program in the Miami-Dade area. “With makeup from MAC, Bobbi Brown, Almay, Clinique, etc., they are given everything necessary to go through the 12 steps of the makeover.”
But more than the physical transformations and makeovers, women going through cancer are able to lift their spirits at the Image Recovery Center and the Look Good Feel Better program.
“I heard a quote that said ‘Life is not about getting through the storm, it’s about learning how to dance in the rain,’ ” Monteleone-McGinn said. “I’m not doing the rumba yet. I’m learning how to get though the storm still — and I’m going to be excited when the storm is gone — but now, I am learning things and maybe tangoing a little.”