Image Recovery Center Helps Cancer Patients Look and Feel Good

The program focuses on helping patients through and after their battles to look good and feel better.

HEALTHY PAMPERING: A cancer patient receives a manicure at the Image Recovery Center//Photo by Tessa Marie Images.


Mani-pedis might seem like the last thing on a cancer patient’s mind—but nails matter, as do hair and skin. Chemotherapy and radiation can severely damage them.

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Coping with these changes is addressed in the American Cancer Society’s “Look Good Feel Better” workshops. Held several times a year at local hospitals, the free two-hour sessions educate patients about skincare, makeup, and hair or wig care. Wigs are a specialty of Jude Plum Salon in Bryn Mawr and Salon Ziza in Ardmore. And Lindi Skin, from Lindy Lou Snider of Bryn Mawr, is a line of products specially created to soothe skin that’s been ravaged by chemotherapy and radiation. 

Now, there’s a place where patients can get similar products and services in one place. Image Recovery Centers are in-hospital spas and salons for patients undergoing chemotherapy, radiation and other damaging treatments. There are more than 20 in hospitals from Nebraska to New Jersey. The only one here is at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America’s Philadelphia location. 

And they’re not only for fun. Patients are advised to keep their nails very short while undergoing treatment. Chemotherapy weakens nails to the point that they may darken or fall off—or at least become extremely fragile. Nail beds can be breeding grounds for bacteria, delivered accidentally by improperly cleaned manicure tools. With their immune systems weakened by chemotherapy, patients are at high risk for infections. 

Image Recovery Centers’ version of a mani-pedi? Tea tree oil is massaged into nails to help the follicles stay healthy; cuticles don’t get cut; all polishes and removers are free of parabens and formaldehyde; and glass bowls are used, sometimes with liner inserts, because they’re easy to sterilize. 

“Patients have their own set of tools that are kept here. Or we can give them a set to take home, and we swap them out when they come in,” says Denise Foster, supervisor of salon and retail services at the Philadelphia CTCA’s Image Recovery Center. “We never want our clients to feel like stereotypical cancer patients.”

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It was Foster who brought the center to CTCA, knowing the need for such a place. Her mother died of breast cancer in 2006. “My mom would’ve loved to come to a place like this,” she says. “What I can no longer do for her, I do for others.”

The first Image Recovery Center was established in 1993 by Marianne Kelly. Eight years earlier, she’d been diagnosed with brain cancer and was given 50-50 odds of surviving. The good news: Surgery removed the cancer. The bad news: Kelly needed 18 months of rehabilitation to cope with vision problems, leg weakness, and a host of other issues. 

“My mom would’ve loved to come to a place like this. What I can no longer do for her, I do for others.”—Philadelphia CTCA’s Image Recovery Center’s Denise Foster

It wasn’t Kelly’s first encounter with cancer. Her sister died of leukemia at 14, and Kelly’s daughter Dana was diagnosed with it when she was 4. She survived after four years of chemotherapy. 

Now in her early 40s, Kelly has a doctorate in cancer epidemiology and knows a lot about cancer from the patient’s point of view. She funneled that into the first Image Recovery Center at MedStar Union Memorial Hospital near her Baltimore home. Once a licensed cosmetologist, she reworked services to make them safe for patients. Its staff members receive training on medical charts, medications and treatments, side effects, and what’s safe for patients at various stages of care. 

In the spa, medical oncology massage therapists know the protocols for chemo-induced neuropathy and how to work with patients who are nauseated, freezing cold, and self-conscious about scars. There’s even a Princess Package for little girls suffering from cancer. “I look at this as rehabilitation for patients,” says Kelly. “It’s critical for them to be educated in how to normalize their lives.”

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Men need special care, too—even shaving takes on new meaning. “They have to be careful about not cutting themselves and protecting their skin against razor burn and ingrown hairs,” Foster says.

Pelle Sana Naturals is the line used at Image Recovery Centers. Kelly created it herself and developed products for men, women and teenagers. Image Recovery Centers carry special products, such as Brian Joseph’s lash- and brow-conditioning gel. “If patients use it before they start chemotherapy, it stops their lashes and brows from falling out,” Foster says. “It works so well that we sell out of it.”

To replace lost eyebrows, Foster suggests a universal brow definer made by Brenda Christian. It’s a pencil that interacts with the pH balance of patients’ hair follicles to reproduce almost the exact color of their natural brow hair. Another popular product is emu oil, which hydrates even the most chapped skin. It works like a charm, as do the cosmetics that patients use to camouflage scars.

There’s much more at the Image Recovery Center, including wigs and head coverings, lymphedema garments, and postmastectomy prosthetic fittings. Each of those services is conducted in private.



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