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I Knit My Way Through Chemo (And To A Sense of Calm)

In November 2018, I was 37 years old and was just getting back to work after the birth of my second kid when I was diagnosed with Stage III colon cancer. The year following my diagnosis, I underwent two surgeries, nine rounds of chemotherapy, and countless pokes and prods. I also knitted three sweaters, eight hats, and at least a half dozen mittens. 

Knitting provided a needed escape and brought me a sense of equilibrium and comfort while waiting for a scan. On days that I needed to feel like I could “do something” but couldn’t get out of bed, I’d knit a row, then close my eyes. During that time, balancing the demands of parenting, working, and being a cancer patient often felt like too much, but when I’d pull out my yarn and find my rhythm, I’d quickly find myself breathing more deeply, and lose myself in the knit and purl.

When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I was frankly overwhelmed.

I was worried about the diagnosis itself, and I was scared of surgery and the side effects of chemotherapy, but most of all, I was terrified for my family and my two very young kids. In those first few months, I spent a lot of time simply waiting. Waiting for doctors’ appointments, waiting to get my blood drawn, waiting in the chemo chair. But no matter where I went, no matter how nervous or tired I might be, my knitting was there with me, giving me something to do with my hands and a place to go when I couldn’t be with my cancer.

My mom taught me how to knit back when I was in high school, and I’d taken it up again at various points over the next 20 years: I’d finished a scarf that my mom started before she died, crafted a pair of warm mittens for my boyfriend (now husband), and made myself a hat to survive a Midwest winter. Each time, knitting provided a comforting place to tune out the noise, be with myself, and focus my energy. 

When I carve out time to knit, it always feels like more than a simple distraction—it’s a way that I have learned to be with myself.

Knitting might not be the first thing that people think about when they hear the term self-care. For me, though, running yarn through my fingers and picking a stitch is a way to find ease. When I was diagnosed and undergoing treatment, I knit mostly for my kids. It was a way I could feel close to them when I was scared, and it felt good to make things that I hoped would give them a small sense of how much I loved them. I wanted to pass something on to them that they could hold in their hands and feel the labor and the love that went into each stitch. Knitting was a way to show myself care, just as I was caring for those most vulnerable in my circle.

It also simply felt good to make things—which isn’t to say that it was always easy. Some days, I was able to surrender to the knit and purl. Other days, my hands felt like they barely worked. I suffered from painful neuropathy as well as an immobility that made it nearly impossible to tie my shoelaces and difficult to write anything by hand. I could only clumsily hold a knitting needle. Still, I found the act and process of knitting, albeit sometimes slow, was grounding when I wasn’t feeling well physically or mentally.

A little over a year has passed since I’ve completed my cancer treatment, and knitting has continued to be my go-to activity. My kids are bigger and my projects are a little bigger, too. I still feel like I am always waiting at the doctors’ office, getting blood drawn, or getting scanned, and my knitting continues to come along to each appointment. Sometimes my anxiety from scans is overwhelming, but the knitting provides a welcome meditative hum. I never expected knitting to be the important daily companion it has become in my life, but I’m grateful for its company.

Haley Pollack lives in Oakland, California with her husband, two kids (Mona, 6 and Amira, 3), and dog. Haley is the co-founder and Executive Director of Bright Spot Network, an organization dedicated to supporting families with young children, where a parent faces a cancer diagnosis.

Blog Cancer Cancer & Self Care Featured on Homepage Pillar Pages

Best Skincare Products For Radiation Therapy

As surreal as they may seem, all those changes you experience in skin color, texture, and feel during radiation therapy are pretty standard. In fact, as many as 90 percent of cancer patients who undergo radiation will experience radiation dermatitis. Those symptoms can range from mild irritation to itchy redness—and even sometimes result in painful sores. 

Because of these changes, it is incredibly important to switch to skincare products that are safe to use during radiation. Bubble baths, exfoliators, scented lotions, perfumes, and even some antiperspirants need to be swapped for gentler, physician-approved products, at least for a little while. However, finding the best radiation skincare products doesn’t have to be a total bummer. There’s still some room for safe pampering even during radiation, as long as the products you’re using are doctor-approved. The most important part of choosing a new radiation-safe skincare routine is to make sure to take any skincare product you’re using to your cancer team and have a doctor review the ingredients before they ever touch radiation-sensitive skin. 

At Happy 2nd Birthday, many of our products are specifically crafted for those undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. But we believe in sharing the love and promoting other brands that also do a great job in this arena—we just want everyone undergoing chemo and radiation therapy to find a product that works for them, and is safe to use. So for those who are wondering what radiation-safe ingredients to look for, here’s a handy guide to choosing the best skincare products for radiation therapy.  

Best soaps for patients undergoing radiation therapy 

During radiation therapy, skin can become red, dry, itchy, and even painful, and it’s pretty understandable that many patients might not be super keen on having the area pelted with shower water while washing with soap. But doctors agree that skin affected by radiation needs to be cleaned every day with a fragrance-free, mild soap in order to reduce the risk of infection. 

When choosing an effective-yet-gentle cleanser for skin during radiation, you’ll want to opt for a formula with a low pH level. The pH indicates how acidic or basic a formula is, and many brands list the pH (which should be somewhere between 4.5-6) right on the label. But even if those numbers aren’t listed, keep in mind that low pH formulas tend to be gel, milky, or creamy, while foaming formulas generally have a higher pH. While it might feel luxurious to treat skin sensitive from radiation to a sudsy lather, it’s probably best to skip the bubbles until after treatment.  

Some great brands that make safe products include Basis and Cetaphil, which are fairly easy to find at most grocery or drug stores, but there are ways to pamper sensitive areas with radiation skincare products that aren’t typical drug store fare, according to Dr. Adam Friedman, dermatologist and professor of medicine at The George Washington University, as long as patients do their homework, consult with their doctors, and use products as directed.

Happy 2nd Birthday’s Calming Creamy Cleanser is another safe radiation skincare product, formulated especially for cancer patients, and deeply hydrating and soothing thanks
to mango seed butter and kukui oil.

“It’s important to use whatever product someone selects
on damp skin and with greater frequency,” says Dr. Friedman.

Best moisturizers for radiation patients

When it comes to effectively moisturizing during the radiation process, skin dryness pretty much comes with the territory. When choosing a moisturizer to soothe inflamed skin, Dr. Friedman says there are three key ingredients to look for:

  • Emollient (e.g. glycol/glyceryl stearate, soy sterols) to lubricate and soften skin
  • Occlusive (e.g. petrolatum, dimethicone, mineral oil) to ‘seal’ and prevent evaporation of water. Silicone derivatives like dimethicone or cyclomethicone are recommended.
  • Humectant (e.g. glycerol, lactic acid, urea, hyaluronic acid) to attract and hold water  

At different stages of the radiation process, skin needs different levels of moisture, according to In the first stages of treatment, when skin is normal or perhaps slightly pink, moisturizing with fragrance-free formulas like Eucerin, Aquaphor, Biafine, or Radiacare following treatment can help soothe irritation.

Happy 2nd Birthday’s Oil-Free Daily Moisturizer is also a safe radiation skincare product with added benefits from the soothing properties of jojoba and smoothing properties of apple extract. 

As the radiation process continues, skin may begin to itch and burn. Aloe vera or over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream can help. And as skin becomes more irritated as part of the radiation process and over-the-counter solutions are no longer effective, consult your doctor about stronger radiation skincare products like prescription steroid creams, which can reduce symptoms. 

Best sunblocks for protecting skin post-radiation therapy 

One incredibly important part of keeping skin safe and healthy before, during, and after radiation therapy is keeping skin safe from the sun. According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, anyone who has had radiation treatments has a higher risk of developing skin cancer in that area. Because skin cancer can show up any time—even years later—this makes sun protection essential for life. Of course, the best way to keep skin safe from sun damage is to avoid the sun entirely, especially during the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., and also by covering up with hats, sunglasses, long sleeves, and pants. However, simply staying indoors covered from head to toe is not exactly a long-term solution. 

Most experts recommended covering unhealed scars, sores, or rashes completely to avoid sun damage. But for those whose symptoms are mild, choosing a fragrance-free sunscreen of 30 SPF or higher, letting it dry for 30 minutes before sun exposure, and reapplying every half hour or so can mean enjoying worry-free fun in the sun. But because skin is ultra-sensitive during radiation, doctors may have more specific sunscreen recommendations, so as with any other product, it’s important to ask, bring the product you’re considering using, and make a plan. 

Radiation therapy is certainly no spa day (in fact, patients often can’t even have those until treatment ends, because there’s no end to the ways in which radiation is unfair). But while a day at a literal spa may not be in the cards, a skincare plan approved by a doctor full of soothing, moisture-rich radiation skincare products can help give patients a little peace of mind during an incredibly stressful time.   

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Bilberry Extract For Skin: The Surprising Benefits, Explained

Researchers are just beginning to tap into how valuable bilberry extract for skincare really is. While this fruit has been used for decades to promote eye health—including by British fighter pilots during World War II!—we’ve only just started to explore bilberry extract benefits for skin. Now, this up-and-coming ingredient has started making an appearance in some advanced skincare products.

What is a bilberry plant?

The bilberry plant, also called “whortleberry” or “European blueberry,” is a shrub that grows wild in northern and central Europe. Its fruit bears a striking resemblance to its close relative the blueberry, but it has a tarter, brighter flavor, and its juices are much darker and more intense—something you’ll notice if you eat them fresh, since they’re also much more likely to stain your hands and tea towels.

Bilberry extract is teeming with antioxidants

While its bright pigmentation may make the bilberry less welcome in your kitchen, that’s exactly why it should earn a spot in your skincare cabinet: the bilberry is one of the most potent natural sources of anthocyanins, which give the bilberry its deep, rich pigment—and its sky-high antioxidant content.

“Antioxidants can help neutralize free radical damage, brighten hyperpigmentation, and support healthy collagen production,” says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., Director of Cosmetic & Clinical Research in Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. “We know that in preventing free radical damage, antioxidants allow the skin to function optimally, aiding in the production of both collagen and elastic fibers.”

Basically, one great tool for fighting free radicals is an ultra-concentrated source of antioxidants like bilberry extract. Skin benefits include everything from boosting collagen production to helping reduce the negative effects of sun damage. Using bilberry extract for skin can harness these antioxidants to slow the appearance of aging.

They’re jam-packed with vitamins, minerals, and phenolic acids

Bilberry extract is positively packed with some of the most important vitamins and minerals in skincare: Vitamins C and E, as well as minerals like magnesium and zinc.

“Vitamins C and E are powerful antioxidants with well-documented skin benefits, including protection against UV rays, and they can also reduce abnormal pigmentation,” says Dr. Zeichner.

Bilberry extract for skincare can also mobilize those minerals in order to calm and soothe irritable skin conditions and reduce inflammation. “Zinc is an anti-inflammatory agent that has been shown to be beneficial in treating acne,” Dr. Zeichner says. Magnesium is also amazing at helping repair your skin barrier, reduce inflammation, and improve skin hydration.

Additional bilberry extract skin benefits are due to the presence of phenolic acids, which are known to reduce sunspots and other skin damage caused by UV rays. The presence of these phenolic acids suggests that while using bilberry extract for skin, you can expect it to alleviate redness and discoloration.

What is the best way to use bilberry extract for skin?

Every doctor will tell you that the best way to get healthy skin (and a healthy body overall) is to drink plenty of water, eat a well-balanced diet full of fresh fruit and vegetables, and get a good amount of exercise. However, if you want to target specific skin concerns, you’ll need to develop a skincare routine, too—and you can’t just take a pill for that.

“Most experts agree that when it comes to skin benefits, topical application is superior to oral supplements,” Dr. Zeichner says. This delivers high concentrations of the active ingredient directly to the skin itself.”

One easy way to incorporate more great actives like bilberry extract: using a high-quality cleanser. After all, no matter how low-key you want your skincare routine to be, everyone has to wash their face, right?

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7 Personal Care Products That Are Meant For Kids But Are Great For You

Products formulated for babies are made with gentle, natural ingredients that soothe, nurture, and cleanse without harsh soaps, artificial fragrances, or sulfates—and the truth is, there’s no reason not to take the same approach to your own skin.

If you’re a grown-up with sensitive skin, or you’re prone to allergies and eczema, you might benefit from switching out some of your products for ones made for kids. Unfortunately, not all of these creams and washes are created equal, so don’t assume the best about every single jar or tube that has “baby” on the label. You’ll often find allergens and synthetic fragrances lurking on the ingredient list, so it’s worth being choosy even in this category (no matter how precious the baby on the label is).

To get you started, check out the following products with simple, natural ingredients chosen for sensitive baby skin, but are great for adults. All are free of sodium lauryl sulfate, artificial fragrances and dyes (so you can still smell like an adult and not like fake baby powder), and most are hypoallergenic, to boot.

1. A Nourishing Cream Stick For Chapped Lips

Photo: Mambino Organics

Though it’s intended to keep tiny cheeks rash-free, the Happy Baby Soothing Stick from Mambino Organics is an amazing moisturizer for adult lips. Unlike traditional chapsticks, this cream stick has a clean ingredient list free of petroleum, parabens, synthetic preservatives, and added fragrance. Instead, the cream is formulated with certified-organic plant oils, like moisturizing jojoba, soothing chamomile, and skin-healing evening primrose oil. In addition to healing dry skin, the cream forms a moisture barrier, protecting skin from the elements.

2. Natural Baby Shampoo That Can Soothe Irritated Scalps

Photo: Babo Botanicals

This fragrance-free baby shampoo is specifically made for extra sensitive and eczema-prone skin, reducing symptoms like irritation and itchiness. The shampoo’s naturally-sourced ingredients include aloe leaf juice, oat protein, and chamomile extract. It’s also hypoallergenic, free of perfume, petroleum, parabens, and sulfates. Because it’s sulfate-free, you won’t see the lather we’ve come to expect from grown-up shampoos, and washing away heavy product build-up is definitely not this gentle cleanser’s strong suit. If you read the label, you will see some scary-sounding ingredients—mainly sodium lauryl glucose carboxylate and lauryl glucoside. Like sulfates, these two ingredients are surfactants, but unlike their harsher counterparts, the glucosides are derived from sugar and won’t further irritate your skin.

3. Hypoallergenic Bamboo Washcloths

Photo: Amazon

Rather than using brushes and sponges from synthetics to wash your face (and body), try these washcloths made from organic bamboo and cotton. The cloths are hypoallergenic and super soft. Bonus: since bamboo is a fast-growing grass, it’s a more sustainable resource than other fabric sources.

4. Swap Out Your Body Wash For Castile Soap

Photo: Dr. Woods Naturally

Made with just eight ingredients, this liquid soap is formulated to gently cleanse and nourish sensitive skin. The formula uses olive oil, vitamin E, and coconut oil to leave skin hydrated and soft, no matter your age. The soap is certified hypoallergenic by the Consumer Product Testing Company and is free of fragrance, sulfates, and all other nasties.

5. Baby Lotion For Sensitive Skin

Photo: Earth Mama Organics

Apart from a clean ingredient list that won’t irritate sensitive skin, this lotion has a divine sweet orange scent that won’t kick up allergies. It’s made with plant oils and extracts like aloe, calendula, shea, and—naturally—sweet orange. The lotion is certified organic by NSF International and scores as squeaky-clean in EWG’s cosmetics database. The lotion is free of petroleum, mineral oil, parabens, and artificial fragrance, but it does contain alcohol. Though alcohols always carry some risk of irritation, cetearyl alcohol (used here) is a fatty alcohol, which has far fewer adverse reactions, and won’t dry out skin.

6. Baby Wipes For A Quick Refresh

Photo: Amazon

It’s a solid idea to keep a pack of baby wipes nearby for late nights when washing your face feels like an impossible task—or for a quick refresh after a workout or a day in the sun. These dermatologist-tested baby wipes are free from alcohol, parabens, sulfates, phthalates, artificial dyes, and fragrances. Apart from their cleansing properties, these wipes have additional skin-loving ingredients like chamomile, sunflower seed, and raspberry seed oils.

7. A Plant-Based Laundry Detergent

Photo: The Honest Company

Given how much contact our skin has with fabrics day and night, a hard-working but hypoallergenic laundry detergent can be a great addition to a nurturing skincare routine. This one uses stain-fighting enzymes, rather than sodium lauryl sulfate, to get clothes clean—and is free from artificial fragrances and dyes. Plus, it’s even promoted by the National Eczema Association.