Men fighting cancer needn't accept the adverse physical effects of the disease. Photo: Tanya Lake
Cancer, it goes without saying, is awful. Apart from staring mortality in the face there's the treatments that are, by all accounts, unpleasant at best, with side effects that leave most looking dreadful.
It might be small potatoes when you're leaning over the abyss, but looking good - or, at least, as good as possible - can help with a positive attitude which many health professionals see as a key to recovery.
Here's where grooming tips can help. It has long been recognised that helping women look as normal as they can - through handy make-up tips, wigs etc -can soften some of the ravages of harsh cancer treatments. But what about the guys?
According to the Cancer Council, one in two Australian men will be diagnosed with some form of cancer by the age of 85. My maths isn't that good but I think that's half of all Australian men. Your brother, but not your dad; your best mate, but not your boss; not the bloke sitting next to you, but maybe you. Horrible.
It's a small thing, and admitted ranks low on the priority list for many, but is there anything men can do to, at least superficially, to look as good as possible during this harrowing time? And is it any help at all?
A free national community service program, Look Good ... Feel Better, holds workshops for men in treatment for cancer, which include instruction from trained volunteers on skin care, make-up, wigs and head coverings.
LGFB spokeswoman Maya Zahran says they're really stepping up the men's program which, she says, improves positivity and a sense of wellbeing, and helps sufferers "feel better about the days to come".
"They shouldn't be seen as a patient but as a person," Maya says.
One man who tried the program, Jeremy, says he had been "finding it difficult to cope" with the changes to his appearance following surgery, and said the LGFB workshops were a big help. "With the hints and help I was given I am feeling more confident," he says.
So what can sufferers expect, and what can they do?
Hair loss is a major side effect of chemotherapy. According to the American arm of Look Good … Feel Better [Link www.lookgoodfeelbetterformen.org], men in treatment should always comb their hair gently and use a mild shampoo. The Gary Ablett look is pretty popular these days, so getting it all shaved off is an option. But be careful if shaving the scalp with a razor - cuts can be hard to heal when blood counts are low. Hair prostheses can cover up the odd bald patch, and wearing a hat or bandanna all day every day is something many men do anyway - cancer or not. If you want to keep the full head of hair look then there's always a wig. Cancer Council Victoria runs a free service that offers the chance to pick a wig of your choice. Other states offer similar services.
Chemotherapy and radiation are, unsurpisingly, no good for the skin. They can leave it dry, itchy, flaky and irritated. It might be a good idea to switch to soap or cleanser made for sensitive skin. Always wash with warm (not hot) water and don't use too much force or one of those granular face scrubs. Be careful when shaving - treatment can leave you at risk of bleeding and infection, so maybe using an electric razor to prevent potential cuts. Let your skin rest a bit from shaving before applying other products. To smooth and relieve dry, flaky skin, dampen a cotton ball with alcohol-free toner and gently swab over face. Next, apply a pea-size amount of light moisturiser on cheeks, forehead and chin – or just on dry patches – and rub in softly.
Use sunscreen. Of course you will, now. Chemotherapy can cause sun exposure-related skin reactions. Sunburns often occur on ears, lips, back of the neck, and arms. A spray-on sunscreen makes it easier to reach a thinning hairline. Moisturising sunscreens help if skin is dry.
Using concealer to hide facial discolouration and dark circles under the eyes is a foreign concept to most men, but dark spots and sallow skin, both of which can be side-effects of treatment, can be covered. Find one that precisely matches your skin tone, dot on any dark spots, blot excess, and blend edges until hidden. Or pick up a moisturiser with a tint and smooth on just as you would any face lotion. It's as simple as that.
Have you been through treatment for cancer or other serious illness? Did having some control over your appearance help?
Visit www.lgfb.org.au for locations and dates of workshops, or call 1800 650 960 for details.