Feeding the Skin
Walking a Friend through Breast Cancer
By Jillian Alexander-Gregory
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork
magazine, August/September 2001.
Copyright 2003. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.
Each of us has the opportunity to go through life with courage and face our difficulties with dignity. This is a story about the forces of nature and the power of personal intent. After working within the beauty industry as a makeup artist and an esthetician for some time, I came to the conclusion -- I was more than a beauty expert, I had become a healer.
Theresa1 returned from Sedona, Ariz., in 1994 filled with stories of her spiritual adventures and awakenings. She shared her experiences with me about a "mother rock" she and her travel companion had come across on their journey. She had communed with the spirits of the rock and believed they had healed some parts of her wounded soul. She brought back tiny fragments of this Sedona rock to place in the medicine bags she handmade for all her friends. As Theresa spoke, she showered me with images of hand-painted sunsets of golden orange melting over canyon walls. The serenity and power of the place sounded inviting. We were laughing and joking as she showed pictures from her jeep tour. Then, without skipping a beat, she said she had a lump in her left breast.
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I felt this was of more importance than she initially was giving it, so I pressed for more information. She told me the lump was very small, but was getting bigger. I questioned her about her definition of "very small" and "bigger." She shrugged and said the lump was pea-sized, adding it had grown to more than twice its size from when she first discovered it, less than 10 days ago.
As the full realization of what she was telling me took effect, I asked, "Have you been to the doctor?" all the while trying to conceal the razor's edge of panic in my voice.
"No," she replied, "I can't afford a doctor." Her tone changed to a flat mix of apathy and defensiveness.
She went on to remind me she was out of work and had no insurance. She said she couldn't have cancer; she couldn't afford to have cancer. Theresa promised if the lump got any bigger, she would go to the clinic. She laughed off the concern and told me I was over-reacting. I felt I was on dangerous ground, and a strong reaction on my part could seal her in a protective wall of denial. A peculiar mix of anger, fear and frustration washed over me. Above it all, I felt helpless. What could I do to convince her to take better care of herself? My mind raced. In my business, I had witnessed innocuous little spots turn to rampant melanomas in as short as three weeks. Certain cancers are like wildfires, and this sounded like one of them.
After Theresa left, I burned sage and then some sweetgrass to clear my body, mind and the room. I lit some candles and began to meditate. I took out the Sedona rock and studied it. I thought about how it was her left breast, the receptive side2, which had the lump. I thought of the relationship between her lack of receptivity and this condition. I asked for the power to help me become a clear channel for healing information. I prayed for answers and for help.
For the next few days, Theresa became very elusive. It is hard to hide from a neighbor, much less a friend, but she managed. I finally went over and rapped on the door. I wanted some answers. After some idle chitchat, I pinned her down with a concerned stare.
"Okay, okay," she grimaced. "It's gotten bigger. I have an appointment at the clinic tomorrow for a biopsy. If it's cancer, I can max out my credit card for the surgery; but if I need chemo, I'll probably have to sell my house."
Theresa was the primary provider for two teenage boys. She had a mortgage and a freelance career as a producer for the studios, but work was slow. I tried to bring home the idea she was worth investing in. Money was nothing compared to the preciousness of her life.
The next time I saw Theresa, she was lying in bed, recovering from surgery. Neither of us knew then this was soon going to become her refuge and her prison.
She smiled weakly and croaked out a little hello. With her eyes closed, she said, "It's cancer." She said it had already spread to her left lymph nodes, and the possibility existed the cancer had metastasized in the rest of her body. The tests were in the works as we spoke. She had undergone a partial mastectomy, and the removal of four lymph nodes. She said once she healed, her arm was going to need massage daily for the rest of her life. She looked a little knocked out. My skin prickled as I noted the bandage around her arm and shoulder. It extended below the neckline of her shirt, like a sling.
The clinic put her on chemotherapy immediately and her gorgeous auburn tresses were thinning within weeks. Having gone through this with another client, Theresa's hairdresser talked her into shaving her head clean. He braced her, compassionately, for the inevitable. Soon, a collection of hats, bandanas, scarves and wigs spangled the top of Theresa's dresser.
The chemicals threw Theresa's body into premature menopause. Weeks went by, turning into months. Countless friends and neighbors brought by the usual considerate fare of casseroles and flowers, while others brought shark cartilage and similar folk remedies. Sometimes, several of us would sit and talk about all of the alternative therapies for Theresa, while one of us fed her ice chips.
I found this a good time to go through my books on nutrition, skin care and herbology. I would read until I was bleary-eyed looking for things that made sense. Because of the research I found3, I believed spirulina might be helpful for Theresa. But the bottle I gave her sat unopened.
Then, in one conversation, it clicked.
A friend of mine who is trained as a chef mentioned a study he had seen which showed weight gain was higher in food service professionals because of their constant contact with calories. I teased him and told him what a great excuse he had for those last few obstinate pounds. He emphasized the theory postulated the caloric intake came from handling the food, not from actually eating it. "You mean, they gain weight because the calories get in through the skin?" I asked.
I had a skin care clientele in West Hollywood at the time and practiced natural skin care. I used all natural ingredients like yogurt, honey and vitamin C. I also used fresh pressed oils, like macadamia nut and almond. I thought some of my actress clients would get paranoid if they thought calories could be absorbed through the skin. Macadamia, (my favorite facial oil) ranked No. 1 in caloric value at 120 per tablespoon. Little did I know how important this information would end up being.
On the first day of Theresa's radiation therapy, the Northridge earthquake hit. We sat through the aftershocks together. She showed me the indelible pen marks the clinician had made on her body that mapped out the treatment path. I asked her what the consequences would be if they happened to overlap the radiation. She said her lungs would become like tissue paper: crisp and dry.
The weeks that followed consisted of picking up her house and mopping her forehead between hot flashes. Most of the time she didn't know who was in her home. She couldn't eat and her body became thinner. After a trip to the clinic, dire news hung over our heads. Theresa's white blood cell count was getting dangerously low, meaning a compromised immune system. She wasn't eating, so cells were starved of oxygen and nutrients. I realized my friend was probably dying, and I didn't want to let that happen.
The study involving food handlers permeated my thoughts. Something clicked. I felt macadamia nut oil might feed the skin enough calories to make a difference. Maybe I could mix something topical and feed her through her skin. It was a long shot, but it was all I had.
With an aromatherapy workshop in my background, I remembered hearing essential oils can carry oxygen into the skin. I had also learned from school that skin respired 1 percent of the body's total oxygen. The teachers noted this especially, due to a young actress whose death was attributed to asphyxiation by total skin coverage with a heavy, oil-based makeup. I also remembered that, according to Chinese herbalism, the skin is closely related to the lungs and the large intestine, both of which are absorption and elimination organs.
I prepared to mix an elixir, understanding that whatever I came up with had to meet certain criteria. It couldn't make her nauseous, it couldn't remotely resemble anything healthy or new age, and I had to get her to use it. In her quest for survival, Theresa had already tried various alternative remedies. She felt they had let her down.
As I gathered ingredients for the elixer, I first pulled the fresh-pressed macadamia oil. I meditated and asked for guidance. Answers came, including lavender for the dry lung tissue.4 I added liquid minerals from distilled seawater and sandalwood oil to assist with the production of white blood cells.5 With the help of a holistic herbal practitioner, I added flower remedies and an herbal infusion.
I felt the mixture needed to "rest," so I didn't give it to Theresa right away. She was too ill and too weak to register anything that was said. I placed my cool hands on her tired forehead. She couldn't eat. The doctor had told her she had to eat or she could die. She couldn't keep anything down, and she was too weak to deal with either aspect.
At the same time, I was reading a book called Rolling Thunder.6 Rolling Thunder was a medicine man. In this book, he said you could make medicine from water and morning sun; you just had to intend love into it. I placed Theresa's bottle on the east windowsill and went to bed. The next morning, I stirred to consciousness and found myself serene and unhurried. I waited for the morning sun to fill the bottle with light. I meditated on the light.
When I returned the next day, Theresa was responsive. She asked to be propped up and requested some ice chips. To my astonishment, she had on eye makeup. She explained how unrecognizable she found her face in the mirror that morning. My eyes welled with tears. She told me that on bad days, she put on her makeup. It made her feel human. I bit my lip to clear my tears when it hit me -- eye make-up remover. I told her I had made her special eye make-up remover, since her skin was a little dryer than usual. She took the bottle and placed it by her bed. Hours went by. She would go from boiling hot to ice cold in an instant. Theresa lay on the edge of life. Another friend showed up for the night vigil, so I went home to rest. I felt like the universe had given me a little power, and I felt hopeful.
The real test came when the blood count was in. The clinic had been taking her blood daily, due to the severity of her condition. I wondered if they dared take a single drop out of her at this point. A mutual friend called and said the count had gone from around three to eight and then to 12. I didn't know exactly what it all meant, but it sounded good. She said Theresa wanted to know what I had put in that eye makeup remover, and to come right over whenever I could.
Several of her friends were there when I arrived and it felt like old times. Theresa kept telling everyone I had made her a "magical" potion. It was great to see her in such high spirits. She told me the doctors where convinced she had eaten something to improve her white cell count. She said the only thing she had done all week besides sweat and sleep was to rub this oil all over her body. I couldn't believe my ears. I was ecstatic. I asked her how she had managed to rub it all over herself. She said it had felt so good on her skin she couldn't help it. She said it was as if her skin was so dry that it drank it in. She looked at me with a twinkle in her eyes and asked, "It was that tutti-frutti stuff you made for me, wasn't it?"
I hoped not to belie my true mission. Theresa proceeded to tell me that even though she hadn't eaten in a week, she felt prompted to rub the oil over her body, and shortly thereafter started feeling better.
I shrugged, shook my head and laughed. Inside, my heart leapt for joy. I have no idea what really happened. All I know is my friend looked better than she had in months, and my hopes for her recovery were rekindled.
Theresa survived the entire series of treatments. She has been through the five-year mark, with no relapse. Much later, Theresa said she realized everything she did during that time had helped keep her alive -- from shark cartilage to prayer to radiation. Who could say for sure?
Jillian Alexander-Gregory has more than 14 years of beauty industry experience from the salons and studios of Beverly Hills, Hollywood and Encino, Calif. As the make-up artist to such talented people as Diane Sawyer, Tom Hanks and Will Smith, Alexander-Gregory has been challenged to make people look and feel great instantly. She also has a decade of experience in aromatherapy, as well as clinical skin care using skin specific enzymes, Chinese herbal tonics and color therapies. She has integrated her experience into a point of view she calls "Holistic Aesthetics." For more information about this article or Alexander-Gregory, e-mail email@example.com.