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Pembroke Pines Center Helps Cancer Patients Feel Beautiful Again

May 18, 2008

By Kathleen Kernicky, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

May 18–Patti Ershowsky had been through the thinning hair, dry mouth and chipped fingernails. When she developed an annoying case of acne that made her feel like a teenager stuck in puberty, the 51-year-old soccer mom went looking for relief.

“I was so depressed. I was feeling so bad about myself,” said Ershowsky, of Cooper City, who is on her third regimen of chemotherapytreatment since she was diagnosed with colon cancer more than a year ago.

Although she rarely wore makeup, Ershowsky decided it was time for a mini-makeover at the Image Recovery Center. Its full-range of beauty services and skin-care products are designed for patients battling the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation.

Opened in March by the Memorial Cancer Institute in Pembroke Pines, it is the first center of its kind in South Florida catering exclusively to cancer patients, said Trish Alonso, a cancer survivor and the center’s manager.

“I felt the best I’d felt in a whole year,” Ershowsky said after a recent visit for a haircut and makeup session. “It makes such a difference.”

A licensed cosmetologist, Alonso teaches women how to pencil in eyebrows to replace those they’ve lost, use concealer to hide dark circles, or add color to make their cheeks look fuller or thinner.

“You want to feel you can leave the house, and no one’s going to look at you funny,” Alonso said. “You want to feel like you have control over what’s happening.”

Such side effects as hair loss, dry or discolored skin and brittle nails can be devastating to women already overwhelmed by a cancer diagnosis, she says.

Alonso has been there. After a cancer diagnosis seven years ago, she had six months of chemo and six months of radiation. She lost her hair. She remembers sitting in the “wig room,” and shaking.

“It was very frightening,” she said. “Most of what I learned, I learned as I went along. … My background was beauty and all of a sudden, it was all gone. It was very humbling.”

Designed with a spa-like atmosphere, the center offers makeup and skin-care sessions, therapeutic manicures and pedicures (no cutting, and a bright array of polish colors), haircuts and wigs, and mastectomy products and fitting services. There’s an acupuncturist, and Alonso plans to add massage therapy and facials.

The center sells makeup, hair and skin-care products designed for chemotherapy patients. The makeup and skin-care items are made without chemical preservatives or perfumes. A bee-pollen shampoo “calms the scalp” and relieves the pain that occurs when roots die and hair falls out. Another helps the hair grow back when treatment is over.

When Donna Demirgian, 49, of Miami Lakes, was diagnosed with breast cancer six years ago, doctors could tell her all about her cancer. But they couldn’t tell her why her scalp hurt when her hair fell out, that her hair would fall out first in strands, and later in clumps, or how to buy the right wig.

“To lose your hair, I won’t say it’s as traumatic as losing a breast, but it’s right up there,” Demirgian said.

Now cancer-free, Demirgian came to the center with her sister, Diane Mogel, 54, who was diagnosed with breast cancer this year.

Mogel, an accountant from Pembroke Pines, takes a no-fuss approach to her makeup and sports a ponytail most of the time. She wasn’t convinced she wanted a makeover.

At the center, Alonso cut her shoulder-length brown hair into a short, stylish bob — a strategy Alonso uses to help women prepare for the loss of their hair. Mogel starts chemotherapy soon.

Mogel tried out different hair colors and styles, modeling wigs for her longtime boyfriend, before settling on a light-brown style with a “messy layered look.”

“I said, ‘OK, I’ll do it,’” she said. “And I felt so much better when I left, without my hair in a ponytail.”

Ershowsky, a respiratory therapist, went home with a new line of skin-care products to treat the acne.

The mother of two girls, ages 15 and 20, she was used to spending time outdoors, especially on the soccer fields. Her younger daughter plays on a travel team. Until she got sick, Ershowsky rarely missed a game.

When the most recent drug treatment left tiny bumps across her nose and cheeks, she was embarrassed to go out.

After trying the new products, her acne is beginning to clear. Alonso did her makeup and cut her hair, which had thinned but not fallen out.

“It’s a blessing,” she said of the center. “It was the happiest I’d felt in a year.”

Kathleen Kernicky can be reached at kkernicky@sun-sentinel.com or 954-385-7907.

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Copyright (c) 2008, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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