Book in to any beauty salon for a treatment and you’ll invariably first be tasked with completing a pre-treatment questionnaire.
For most it’s a perfunctory exercise in box ticking by which the salon can ascertain some basic information about your general health and your treatment preferences, from the desired pressure of your massage to the skin concerns you’d like your facial to address.
For those with cancer, it’s often the moment a beauty salon will turn them away.
“I think it takes a lot of balls to go to a spa when you’re going through treatment, and if you’re then turned away how much damage does that do? It’s wrong on every level,” says Jennifer Young, the brains behind a range of specialised oncology massages and beauty treatments recently launched in all Cowshed spas nationwide.
“Women don’t stop being women when they’re diagnosed with cancer. They still want access to beauty and they still want beautiful beauty products,” says 48-year-old Young, whose journey into the world of oncology massage began with a call from her local hospital in Staffordshire in 2012, asking if she could create a skincare range for them that catered specifically to the needs of cancer patients.
Young is a trained scientist (she has a BSc (Hons) in Biology and two post-graduate qualifications in health related fields) who had, at that time, just left her job as an occupational health adviser (she worked with organisations like Caterpiller, Cadbury and HSBC) to retrain as a massage therapist, beauty therapist, nutritional therapist and aromatherapist, and was developing a skincare range based on aromatherapy oils at the time the hospital called.
“I was working with women all the time who needed and wanted beauty in their lives, but as an entry level beauty therapist you’re taught not to touch cancer patients,” she recalls. “Once I began learning about the way cancer patients were excluded from beauty I just felt outraged. Totally outraged that there was a need for specialist skincare but it didn’t exist, and all of these gorgeous women couldn’t access beauty. It was just wrong.”
So Young took the hospital up on their challenge and set about creating the first ever skincare range designed specifically to cater to the needs of those undergoing (or who had undergone) courses of radiation and chemotherapy, the side effects of which are typically nail damage, hair loss, chapped lips and itchy, sore, dry, flaky and sensitive skin.
She spoke to patients and ex-patients when developing the range, all of whom were very clear that they wanted something natural, organic and preservative and fragrance-free – “they feel they have exposure to enough chemicals thanks to the treatments they are going through,” says Young. She then sought the council of the leading chemotherapy and radiation nurses in the country on what natural products to steer clear of. As many cancers are fed by oestrogen, they strictly forbade anything that was a plant oestrogen, such as Aloe Vera (a potent phytoestrogen), soy and Evening Primrose.
“It was controversial because a lot of hospitals will suggest Aloe because it reduces the soreness of radiation burns, which it definitely does,” says Young. “But the nurses I worked with were not only concerned about what it superficially does – which is a benefit, without doubt – but also the longer term biological impact.”
The skincare range she developed, Defiant Beauty, initially consisted of six products and, thanks to an overwhelmingly positive response, now runs the gamut of skincare, makeup and haircare.
As she was launching the skincare range into the hospital, Young was also training as a massage therapist, and being taught never to touch or treat cancer patients. A curious scientist by nature, Young began quizzing doctors and scientists on why this was, and unearthed no satisfactory answers. “The reason we are told not to touch cancer patients is driven with good intention, but based in fear,” she explains. “There is a fear in the beauty industry that if we massage somebody who’s got cancer then those cancer cells will spread around the body. And that is not evidence based.” In fact, she found evidence entirely to the contrary. “There is a huge body of evidence to show that massage is enormously and measurably beneficial to those going through treatment for cancer,” she says.
Why, therefore, were cancer patients being denied treatment? In a nutshell, oncology massage requires some special training. While touch itself won’t spread cancer, there are risks of cross infection. “You’ve got a really vulnerable client group, their immunity is low, you need to adopt a different standard of hygiene,” explains Young. “You also need to have an understanding of the kinds of medical devices they might present with and you need to know the potential impact of lymph nodes being removed.”
So once again she set about to solve the problem, and designed a formula for oncology massage that could be widely trained and implemented. The Jennifer Young Oncology Therapies follow recommended parameters but are essentially bespoke; therapists are guided by the client’s preferences and what their condition will allow. “Our philosophy is never to turn anybody away,” says Young. “We will always find something to do.”
And to that end, the client base is enormously varied, from the severely ill patients they serve on several chemo wards around the country; to those popping into beauty salons that are comparatively well with cancer. “The image that you have in your head of a cancer patient isn’t probably entirely accurate. We have some clients who present as being really quite well and are very active, as well as those who are very not well,” says Young, describing one client who frequently bike rides from Manchester to Blackpool in aid of one of his treatment hospitals.
The treatments are designed to make people feel safe and secure and are so relaxing that they’re also popular with non-sufferers. “When I was designing the massage routines what I wanted to communicate was acceptance. People with cancer often tell me that they feel ostracised, that people aren’t touching them because they’re scared they’re contagious,” she says. “I wanted to communicate not only safety and security, but also acceptance.”
For some, they’ve also had an unprecedented emotional impact. During the trials, one woman sat up after her massage and began to sob uncontrollably. The team were understandably concerned, until the woman explained them to be happy tears. The massage was the first non-medical touch she had received in the seven years since she had been diagnosed. “Nobody had given her a hug and no one had touched her other than to put needles into her,” Young explains.
Young’s treatments are available at several beauty salons and hospitals around the UK, and have recently launched in all Cowshed spas. In an ideal world, she thinks all spa therapists should have specialist training so they don’t discriminate against those suffering and recovering from cancer. And given the diagnosis rate for cancer is going up from one in three to one in two, it doesn’t make sense for spas to be turning away half their client base.
Jennifer Young is on a mission to ensure cancer patients are not only not ignored or forgotten by the beauty industry, but that they are warmly and positively embraced.
“People who get diagnosed with cancer leave the hospital with a big pile of papers saying ‘don’t do this, don’t do that… don’t, don’t, don’t.’ I’ve really tried to turn that around.”
Jennifer’s skincare tips for cancer patients
Having reviewed the advice given to cancer patients, by doctors and advisory bodies, she suggests the following:
- Use only natural products formulated especially for use during cancer treatment
- Be gentle with your skin
- Use less soap
- Moisturise your skin regularly avoiding products that contain alcohol as these can be drying
- Use lip balm daily from the start of chemotherapy
- Protect your skin from the sun
- Look after your hands and feet, moisturising them often from the start of chemotherapy
- Look after your fingernails and toenails, use a natural oil based product to moisturise
Jennifer’s tips for nails changed by chemotherapy
Fragile nails: Keep nails short. Use nail varnish and nail oil
Dry nails: Use nail oil
Flaking nails: Keep nails short. Use nail varnish and nail oil
Discoloured nail beds: Use a dark nail varnish to camouflage discolouration
Ridged nails: Use nail oil and a dark, glittery nail varnish to camouflage ridges.
The Jennifer Young Training School offers accredited qualifications for beauty therapists who want to train in oncology massage.
For more information see her website: beautydespitecancer.co.uk