Inclusive products for breast cancer and chemotherapy patients

From athleisure to clean beauty, here are some brands designed by those in the know about the disease and its body-altering treatments

Breast Cancer Awareness Month is annually celebrated in October, and there’s no better time to take stock of your physical health, schedule check-ups, educate yourself and support the cause, by donating or purchasing products or services that support charities.

However, just because the month is drawing to a close, it's no reason to let your guard down. Cases are on the rise globally, with UAE cancer rates pegged as five times higher in young adults than in the UK and the US.

Awareness can be the key to beating the disease, which is why products designed to be more inclusive of breast cancer survivors aren’t only welcome, they’re the need of the hour. After all, those diagnosed with cancer or undergoing chemotherapy find their bodies change almost overnight and that they need everyday products to accommodate these changes, as UAE resident Tara Rowledge, 52, explains.

“After fighting stage three advanced breast cancer since 2019, my body has changed in shape and weight,” says Rowledge, who underwent 20 weeks of chemotherapy, 36 sessions of radiotherapy, a bilateral mastectomy with tissue expanders, breast reconstruction with implants and, finally, fat transfer. Besides weight gain, and losing her hair, Rowledge was left exhausted by the regular radiation sessions.

It’s what led her to embrace athleisure. During that time, she met Kelly Hodgkin, brand director of home-grown company Gym Clothing Co, and was bowled over by the comfort the brand offered. “I was rushing around and needed to be comfy, so I would put [the clothes] on. They look smart and on trend, and suit women of all shapes and sizes,” she says.

Practicality aside, Rowledge says the clothing boosted her self-esteem. “My weight had increased from 59 kilograms to 75kg. I wanted to push myself, but then you go back to the gym and see all these fit-looking people ... I didn’t feel comfortable working out.

“But these clothes have a great style, and it made me feel good to put on something that wasn’t overly expensive and looked flattering.” She says the feeling also pushed her to start working out again, even if it was going for long walks.

Hair loss is another side effect of gruelling radiation therapy, and one that can have devastating consequences on your confidence. While Rowledge says she "embraced the baldness" and used beautiful headscarves, and many others also opt for wigs, the damage wrought on eyebrows and eyelashes is harder to hide.

Enter RevitaLash, a brand launched in 2006 by ophthalmologist Dr Michael Brinkenhoff to help his wife, Gayle, feel beautiful during her 25-year battle with metastatic breast cancer.

“I took great care when formulating the original lash serum as it was intended to be used by one of the most beloved people in my life. Safety was paramount – and still is today. It was important to me that the formula be comprehensive and well-rounded so it could deliver the proper nutrients and healthy support that lashes need to thrive under harsh conditions such as chemotherapy,” explains Brinkenhoff.

When Gayle started using the product, the outcome was so noticeable that other cancer patients in her ward started commenting, and wanted to know her secret – and it led to the start of the cosmetics company, which sells its products on Projectbyouty.com.

Also available on the website, which caters to this niche market, is Manta, a hairbrush created specifically for post-chemo care.

“I was 33, with three children under the age of 4, when after my first cycle of chemotherapy my hair was falling out in big chunks,” says Dani Binnington. “The feeling of sweeping up big balls of hair from the floor was worse than the thought of not having any. So quite early on, I shaved my hair off. That was the start of my ‘hair journey’. That was to be expected. When it was growing back, that’s when my unexpected hair journey continued. I wanted to be extra-gentle with my new hair.”

Foreseeing the need for a special hairbrush, her husband, Tim Binnington, who has more than 25 years of experience as a professional hairdresser, decided to create one that was “as gentle on the hair as running your hands through it”. The product features a soft touch rubber compound that moulds to the shape of the scalp, which stimulates blood flow, while continuous movement of the brush and base means strands never reach the stress point to avoid breakage.

Cancer patients also have to be aware of each and every product they’re putting on their skin. “When a person is diagnosed with cancer, they are told not to put anything but natural ingredients on the skin,” explains Secret Skin founder Anisha Oberoi. “Your skin in your largest organ and what you apply to it can seep into the bloodstream and disrupt your hormones. And it’s shocking to see the kinds of ingredients that are sometimes used in products that target women.”

Oberoi was diagnosed with breast carcinoma in her late twenties, which led to surgery, chemotherapy, physiotherapy and hormone therapy, in what she describes as a “very raw” experience. “You go through a visceral journey with yourself. Your way of looking at your body changes because of the medication, you are humbled.” She says that it forever changed her perception of beauty.

Now 11 years into remission, she says the journey inadvertently led to the launch of Secret Skin, an online platform offering sustainable and cleanskincare products. Its curated range includes brands such as the UK’s Mauli, India’s Purearth, Dubai’s Apothecary by Mamta and Wild Beauty from the Welsh estate of Lord Robert Newborough.

“I wanted to make sure that clean beauty could be both accessible and affordable,” says Oberoi, who is meticulous about what brands are sold under Secret Skin, and the ingredients within them. “And I wanted to break the stereotype that they didn’t perform as well as pharmaceutical products.”

Giving UAE residents the option of buying locally and supporting small businesses is an added bonus.

Meanwhile, ensuring that cancer patients have a platform where they can buy products “without the nasties” was also important. “When you’re undergoing chemotherapy, you are already under a lot of toxic medication,” Oberoi says.

By offering several conscious brands under one platform, she hopes that Secret Skin can be a preventive game changer for everyone.

“Personal care and make-up are emotional commodities. Women have used them for generations, they helps us feel fortified, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if we are using these products anyway, why not look at cleaner alternatives? That’s what we all need to focus on.”

Updated: October 28th 2021, 4:24 AM