Cancer Salon Confronts Disparities with Faith, Love

What does it suggest about today’s medical world when a woman of color braves a potentially life-saving mastectomy only to receive an artificial breast meant to match the pinkish white skin tone of a Caucasian?

Many African American, Latina, Asian and other non-white women have a difficult time finding prostheses that match their skin color. The needs of all women waging war against breast cancer extend far beyond the artificial breast pigments available to them after a mastectomy, but this absence of choice is what initially compelled Shirley Manly-Lampkin, RN, PhD, to work toward eradicating such disparities.

In 1987, while working on her master’s thesis, she launched Imani’s, an Oakland-based post-mastectomy healthcare salon focused on the specific needs of African Americans and other women of color.

Artificial breasts designed to match darker skin tones, enabling each woman’s healing journey to be rightfully self-centered, is one such need. But another, according to Manly-Lampkin, is the establishment of a link between post-mastectomy care and self-beautification.

“When you look at society, everything is focused on beauty and health, especially on the breasts,” she explains. “As a result, when a woman has a mastectomy, she often feels as though she is no longer complete. With Imani’s post-mastectomy services, we try to help each woman to focus on her outer and inner beauty in the belief that if she looks good on the outside, she’ll feel even better on the inside.”

At Imani’s, a call for breast cancer awareness resonates from soft pastel walls. Visitors encounter the intimacy of a beauty salon and boutique stitched together with the thread of advocacy. Its small staff of certified post-mastectomy fitters, aestheticians and massage therapists tailor their assistance to the needs of each visitor.

“I encounter all kinds of women emotionally,” explains Certified Fitter Patrice Lee. “Some women cross their arms over their chest when being measured for their prosthesis. Others drop their arms to their sides and seem fine with it. So, I have to be sure to consider the physical and emotional needs of each woman.”

After being fitted — which is perhaps the most sensitive part of post-mastectomy care — women can return for one of many purifying skin treatments performed in one of Imani’s private treatment rooms. The numerous options include seaweed body wraps, hot stone therapy and back “facials.”

A massage by one of Imani’s certified massage therapists can help to relieve muscle tension, encourage blood and lymphatic circulation, and reduce the amount of time it takes to heal following a mastectomy.

Once her purified skin shimmers and her kneaded muscles acquiesce, a woman may opt to have a complete makeover by one of Imani’s certified aestheticians. Using the highest quality cosmetics, specially trained workers enhance more than just a woman’s natural beauty. Because women lose all body hair during chemotherapy, aestheticians can affix artificial eyebrows and eyelashes, helping to restore a sense of wholeness.

Stylish wigs and hats are also available to women who have lost their hair to chemotherapy. In addition, Imani’s carries a collection of elegant designer clothes fit for women of various sizes. Lifting the spirits of post-mastectomy women and keeping them that way during their treatment and healing process lies at the heart of every service and product offered at Imani’s.

Although Imani’s focuses primarily on self-image rehabilitation, Manly-Lampkin re-emphasizes the importance of learning to love and accept the self.

“We all have parts of us that we either like or dislike, but we run into problems when we start viewing ourselves in terms of our pretty eyes or beautiful breasts, ugly this or ugly that,” she explains. “We never know when that one body part we worship may need to be removed.

“But some women will say, ‘I’m not just a breast, I’m a whole person!’ or ‘I came here with two breasts and a full set of teeth and now I’m missing one breast and two teeth.’ So many women make up whatever they need to in order to go through the healing process,” she laughs.

Sadly, some women’s healing process, though successful, does not result in renewed physical health. The photographs and obituaries of women who have died of breast cancer adorn a small table just opposite the massage room.

“Every time we try to take it down, other women tell us not to,” says Manly-Lampkin, smiling. “They say they can feel the aura and spirit of the sheroes that have made their transition from life to death. Seeing the photos inspire them to continue championing through this disease.”

It was the women that Manly-Lampkin interviewed for her master’s thesis back in 1987, that inspired the name, “Imani’s,” which means “faith” in Swahili. “They all talked about the importance of having faith in going through cancer and I thought it would be a wonderful name to have because I truly believe that we must walk by faith,” she explains.

Faith is good, but what happens when women begin substituting faith for fairness?

“We’re now seeing the government’s efforts to create a number of grants for what they’re now calling ‘health disparities,'” she says. “And some are for racial disparities because many women of color have received inferior treatment, regardless of income.”

Manly-Lampkin urges women to become as aggressive as the cancer invading their body when they feel they’ve been discriminated against.

“This is where Bay Area women need to fight.”

Originally published in the October 2004 issue of Bay Area Business Woman News, which went out of business in 2010.