Reviewed by Jessica Saint
A cancer diagnosis is life changing in so many ways. People experience physical effects, both from the cancer itself and the treatment. Chemotherapy, for example, can leave the skin red, itchy, and peeling. If you’re interested in being an esthetician who helps people during difficult periods of illness, consider oncology esthetics training to focus on the unique needs of cancer clients.
Because people fighting cancer often require gentle skincare therapies, professionals trained in oncology esthetics approach spa-related treatments with added sensitivity. Even after the cancer is gone, an esthetician may continue to help boost the healing process and avoid complications.
With an estimated 38.4% of Americans expected to receive a cancer diagnosis during their lifetimes, according to the National Cancer Institute, oncology esthetics is a fast-growing career. People going through cancer treatments look for gentle, safe options for addressing their skin care and other esthetic needs.
To become an oncology esthetician, you will first need to complete general esthetician training and obtain state licensure. Then you can complete a separate training program that teaches you how to safely modify treatments with cancer clients in mind. The educational program and required exams may vary based on your state’s requirements. Some states even offer licensure pathways through apprenticeship programs and specialized oncology certifications.
Oncology estheticians work within the framework of integrative oncology, which focuses on treating the patient’s mind, body, and spirit to boost their overall well-being. Here are the five top ways you, as an oncology esthetician, can better aid oncology patients. In addition to the tips below, picking up a copy of “Oncology Esthetics: A Practioner’s Guide” by Morag Currin may be useful as well.
Tip 1: Be Gentle
The first rule oncology estheticians learn is that less is more. In other words, you use less steam, less heat, less massage, and fewer products. Being gentle is important when working with people currently or recently undergoing cancer treatment.
Tip 2: Ask Questions
Oncology patients undergo many different types of treatments, which may influence the safest way to apply skincare services. You may ask your clients questions like:
Tip 3: Modify Treatment Plans
Each client’s circumstances will vary, and this can impact how they respond to different treatments. Estheticians should also request a doctor’s note. This note explains what treatments are allowed and what areas to avoid.
Oncology estheticians use their advanced knowledge of the side effects associated with cancer treatments to adjust their services depending on the client’s condition. For example, you may modify a client’s exposure to treatments that can have adverse effects on reactive or sensitive skin, including:
Modifying normal esthetic treatment plans allows your clients in recovery or actively in treatment to feel comfortable and understood. According to Jessica Saint, a makeup and hair artist and esthetician in New York City, “when choosing products, it is important to make sure we're using non-toxic, paraben-free, organic products. Ayurvedic facials are great for many patients as they are done with all-natural products that are customized to each client's skin, so I tend to do Ayurvedic facials on all of my clients who have or have had cancer.” Saint also mentions that many patients are requesting CBD products as part of their treatments, as it may reduce nausea, pain, insomnia, inflammation, and vomiting.
Additionally, the technique itself may be different with an oncology patient: “When it comes to massage, it is also important to have an understanding of massage techniques since lymph-node removal can cause painful swelling that lasts for life and if your massage techniques are the same you use on other clients, you may be causing more harm and good,” Saint explains. “Chemo also builds up in the hands and feet which causes itching, burning, and general discomfort. A light touch is absolutely necessary for these clients as it can really alleviate some of the pressure and pain. You have to be cautious with any lymphatic drainage and massage if they've had any lymph-nodes removed or have any port placements in their arms.”
Tip 4: Gain Training in Other Healing Techniques
Many patients seek relief or comfort from the numerous unpleasant side effects that cancer treatment and therapy cause, like dry skin, loss of elasticity, rashes, and sensitivity issues. A certified oncology esthetician is trained to ease these symptoms, but they may also get additional training in other healing techniques, such as:
Jessica Saint mentions Access Bars® as an additional treatment, which is similar to Reiki, “only we work with 32 points on the head as opposed to working with the entire body. This is something I do with any client healing from something like this. Especially my main client with breast cancer. I am unable to do much as far as massage on her decollate, so I massage her face and then do some Bars on her while her mask sets.” Access Bars have been shown to change brain frequencies.
Holistic approach certifications or added training may be required to practice these types of disciplines.
Tip 5: Learn Another Spa Service
Oncology estheticians may also seek to relieve common symptoms like anxiety, pain, fatigue, nausea, and insomnia through massage and spa services.
You may also provide services beyond skincare therapy, such as:
Providing additional services like these may help you better serve your clients and expand your clientele. You may need added training and separate state licenses for each service, depending on the requirements in your area.
Though some clients who are oncology patients may express interest in services such as microblading or lash extensions, if they are immunocompromised, these services could pose a risk to their health. Part of being an oncology esthetician is knowing what can contribute to the client's wellness and self-image without harming their health.
How Hair Stylists and Nail Technicians Can Help Oncology Patients
The beauty industry has long played a part in helping cancer patients. The annual campaign Look Better Feel Better for breast cancer awareness every October champions access to prevention strategies, supports women with breast cancer, and promotes national awareness.
Other licensed positions in the beauty industry — like hairstylists and nail technicians — also help oncology patients in a variety of ways. They may avoid using certain chemicals and work with extra care. Many professionals offer wig fittings, hair and scalp treatments, manicures and pedicures, and products for sensitive skin, hair, and nails. Some volunteer to teach others about skin, hair, and nail care after and during cancer treatment to enhance body image as well.
"Helping someone feel beautiful and rested during a time where they may not have the potential to make a significant difference in their life. This is a time where their spirits may be down, they're in pain, their skin is hypersensitive and dry, and they just need some extra care. With each client, I offer energy healing and one-on-one personalized treatment that involves a very gentle, loving touch,” Saint tells us. “At its core, Oncology Esthetics is an extension of healing. Clients of mine who have or have had cancer keep coming back because when they leave my room, I make sure they feel lighter and loved with gorgeous, glowing skin."
Meet the Expert
Jessica Saint is a Makeup and Hair Artist as well as an Esthetician with over a decade of experience working in the fashion and beauty industry. She has worked with Pat Benatar, Jude Law, RZA, Jose Garces, and more. She has also worked on magazine covers for noteworthy publications, backstage at New York Fashion Week, as well as on Broadway with The Lion King and Dr. Dolittle.
Jessica does makeup and hair out of a photography studio called Créer Studio in the Bok Building in South Philadelphia. She also does skincare out of a South Philly spa called Birds of Prey Artistry & Wellness. In addition to her extensive makeup and hair portfolio, she has a deep passion for skincare and offers a variety of skin services such as facials, micro-channeling, waxing, lash lifts, and more. Last, but not least, she is a certified Access Bars Practitioner.