Denice Whiley - Survivor

October 15, 2007|By MARIE GILBERT

Confronted with the possibility of losing her life, breast cancer survivor Denice Whiley didn't think she would be concerned about losing her hair - until she looked in the mirror.

"I came face to face with the stark reality of my disease," the 50-year-old Hagerstown woman said. "I never felt so demoralized. I had been robbed of a breast; now, thanks to chemotherapy, I was being robbed of my femininity."

Hair loss can be one of the most distressing side effects of cancer treatment, says Joan Fell, executive director of Breast Cancer Awareness - Cumberland Valley.

"When patients first see their reflection, the emotions they experience can be very difficult to deal with," she notes.

But a visit to BCA's wig, hat and prosthesis bank often brings a smile back to their faces.

"They find the right wig or turban, and they feel like themselves again," she says.

According to Fell, all of the items in the bank, located in BCA's offices at 322 E. Antietam Street, are available to breast cancer patients free of charge.


Step inside the room and you'll find shelves of natural-looking wigs of all colors and styles and a large selection of turbans.

"Women tell us how much they appreciate being able to come to our offices, rather than having to go shopping for these items," says Fell. "It's one less thing they have to worry about."

Having hair on her head - even though it wasn't her own - made the biggest difference in how Whiley felt about herself.

"It wasn't just about how I looked on the outside. It was how I felt on the inside," she says. "I had my confidence and self-esteem back. And that was important to my recovery."

Also important to restoring a woman's body image is the selection of a proper-fitting prosthesis.

Prostheses are forms molded as breasts and are worn inside the bra. They vary from a soft fiber filling placed in a bra to a custom-made form of your breast.

Some women, Fell says, prefer not to leave the hospital without a way to appear balanced in their body image. Often, a fabric form that matches the size of the remaining breast can be placed into a bra. When the incision is healed, a permanent prosthesis can be selected.

Because balance is important, Fell says BCA's shop offers a wide range of prostheses for all body sizes - from very small to very large.

BCA also offers bras for mastectomy patients, as well as Cuddl' Duds, a camisole for radiation patients.

"The skin can be very sensitive during and after cancer treatments," Fell says. "These camisoles are extremely soft and comfortable against a woman's body."

Besides protheses, breast cancer patients have the option to have their body image restored through plastic surgery.

"Breast reconstruction has made a big difference, both physically and emotionally, for many women who have undergone surgery for breast cancer," says Judy C. Kneece, author of 'Your Breast Cancer Treatment Handbook.' They feel it will bring back their feminine silhouette and alleviate the necessity of wearing a prosthesis."

Some have reconstruction at the time of the initial breast surgery, while others wait until their treatments have been completed.

Some women choose never to have reconstruction.

It's an option, Kneece says. You choose what best meets your needs.

When a woman goes through cancer treatment, she is usually aware that there will be some changes in her appearance.

But there may be issues other than hair loss, according to the American Cancer Society.

Developing sensitive, dry skin during treatment is quite common, says the ACS, because the chemo and radiation disrupt the skin's normal rejuvenation. A patient might, literally, be uncomfortable in her own skin. Doctors might recommend making some cleansing adjustments, such as using a mild soap and switching to richer moisturizers, sometimes medically prescribed.

Chemotherapy can also cause fingernails to split or become discolored, and dark circles may develop under the eyes. Such changes - and how to deal with them - should be discussed with your physician or peer counselors.

In addition to hair loss, Whiley says she lost her eyelashes.

"These problems persisted for months," she says. "But my doctor assured me they would grow back, and they did."

Today, eight years later, Whiley says she has a positive image of herself, and most people would never know what she went through because of breast cancer.

"The most important thing I could share with other women going through the entire process is to take care of yourself as a whole person," she says. "Do what you can to feel good about yourself. It's a big part of recovery."

Marie Gilbert is a feature writer for The Herald-Mail Company. She can be reached at

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