July 15, 2016 | by Stephanie Smith
Since she was a little girl, Donna McNutt has thought of donning a new outfit as a way to transform herself. Pieces perfectly composed were not just a way to look and feel good, but a way to steel herself against adversity.
"No matter what bad circumstances I was in, getting dressed made me feel confident about myself,” said Donna, 55. “It always seemed to boost me.”
On Easter morning last year, after months of exhaustion and crippling pain in her ribcage, Donna sat on her bed, sapped of all energy and unable to do the one thing that so often boosted her spirits: Get dressed.
“I sat on my bed and literally could not even get clothes out of my closet to put on,” said Donna. “And I just said to my husband, ‘Can you take me to the hospital? Because I think something is wrong with me.'”
That hospital visit led to a whole series of tests and scans. She says testing on her blood revealed around 85 percent of her cells were cancerous. Multiple myeloma, a blood cancer, had so infiltrated Donna’s system that several of her bones and organs were damaged. She was in terrible pain.
“I remember being so sick, literally hunched over on a bench, not able to lift my head or even make eye contact with anybody,” said Donna of the period just after being diagnosed. “And I remember later getting dressed up and starting to feel better. It made me feel like, I will never be that person again.”
By the time she was getting care at City of Hope, Donna had decided that her best defense against the revolving door of tests, scans and infusions would be to look as sharp as possible.
In anticipation of losing her hair during chemotherapy, Donna shaved it pre-emptively. “I pulled a Britney Spears,” she says jokingly. Then, to feel better about having no hair, she decided to have fun with it by buying a pink wig and a collection of gorgeous scarves.
Other strategies she used to help her feel better: Rather than draping a drab blanket across herself during chemotherapy, she used a vividly colored pashmina; or on the day of a stem cell transplant to treat her cancer, she wore bright pink pajamas.
“I was like, ‘I’m going to get some outrageous pajamas for this,’” she said of the difficult procedure. “I don’t need to go in and wear their hospital gown the whole time.”
Appearance and emotions are often intertwined, so it stands to reason that improving what’s going on outwardly could help a patient — at least emotionally — face what’s going on inside with cancer.
“It’s like when you have a bad hair day, you feel bad,” said Cassie Polchow, a cancer resource cosmetologist at the Positive Image CenterSM at City of Hope. “So when you have a good hair day, or a good makeup day then you feel good.”
Simply applying makeup, getting their eyebrows done or getting fitted for a beautiful wig is a boost for many patients says Polchow’s colleague, Stella Sainz. “Just the eyebrows alone light them up because they don’t have any,” said Sainz, a cancer resource cosmetologist. “They say … thank you so much for helping me look and feel better.”
Donna is still undergoing treatment for multiple myeloma and has been documenting her journey in a blog she calls “The Cancer Fashionista.” She finds that focusing on fashion, alongside cancer, has made her readers (mostly friends and family) feel better — and lifted her own spirits.
She says steadying your spirit and finding a boost during an overwhelming situation like cancer can involve anything that makes you feel good. For her, it’s getting dressed; for someone else, it might be a jog or a walk on the beach.
“I think for anybody going through any bad thing, we can give up; we might not ever smile again,” said Donna. “I had that little voice inside of me telling me ‘get dressed, get dressed. It makes you feel better.’ It makes your head go up a little more.’”
Learn more about City of Hope's Multiple Myeloma Program. If you are looking for a second opinion or consultation about your cancer treatment, request an appointment online or contact us at 800-826-HOPE. Please visit Making Your First Appointment for more information.