Instagram Beauty Trends Helped Me Escape the Reality of My Cancer Diagnosis

“Is that one of the matte colors?” A woman, choosing a polish from the wall of nail lacquers behind her, squinted at my nails as she approached me on a late July afternoon this past summer. I was sitting at a manicure station at a salon near my apartment, waiting for the nail technician to finish with another client. I’d barely opened my mouth before she came closer and suddenly stopped in her tracks. A quizzical, slightly disgusted look crept over her face. 

I knew this look well: a split-second switch from curious to confused, usually accompanied by some involuntary sound before the person sputters out, “Oh. Sorry. I just…never mind.” The interaction immediately brought me back to a similar moment months earlier, when I first picked up my mani-pedi habit again and a nail technician asked why my nails looked “like that.” You see, that matte black was au naturel. As the woman scuttled away, I joked to myself, “Maybe she’s born with it, or maybe it’s cancer.”

This October marks my first cancerversary. It’s been exactly one year since I was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer right before my 32nd birthday. I felt a quickly growing lump in my breast during the summer of 2020, at the height of the pandemic, when doctor appointments were hard to come by. It took months before my official diagnosis, though it was clear my medical team already knew what it was. 

You quickly become an expert in doctorspeak when you’re waiting in cancer limbo. “It looks concerning” translates to “You’re fucked.” By the time of my diagnosis, the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes. My treatment plan included two surgeries, two intensive rounds of chemo, monthly injections to alternating butt cheeks, and radiation. Each step offered its own unique strain of misery.

Chemotherapy brought on myriad side effects, including splotchy and scaly skin, hot flashes, and drastic weight fluctuations. It also discolored my tongue and my fingernails, which turned shades of inky black and purple before peeling away from the nail bed and cracking or breaking off. This side effect is called nail lifting, and it’s as chic as it sounds. I got vaccinated in March, which coincided with my first round of chemo. I decided this was cause for celebration and immediately booked my first mani-pedi of the pandemic with all the extras: hot stones, a massage, keratin gloves. When the nail tech finished and asked if I liked how the color turned out, I inspected my nails—beautifully painted in a warm brown hue from Essie called Playing Koi—and burst into tears.

Nneka Joi

For NYC transplants, one of the proof points for becoming a real New Yorker is having a public breakdown. This wasn’t my first rodeo. In my 14 years here, a couple of shameless and uncontrollable crying fits come to mind. I laid any remaining doubt to rest that day. “Don’t worry! I’m fine, I’m fine! They look sooo nice!” I said, while sucking in air between sobs, creating a special brand of awkward for everyone in my vicinity.

Up until that moment, catching a glimpse of my nails—opening a door, sending a text message, washing my hands—was a constant reminder of my cancer. Seeing them painted and exceedingly normal overwhelmed me. Most importantly, it sparked a ritual. I committed to treating myself to manicures every few weeks, embracing it as a creative outlet and trying out trends like inverse French tips, abstract designs, and mix-and-match colors. Anything to take my mind off my reality. My nails were too brittle to handle acrylics or even UV gel lights, but getting them done became a simple act of self-care that lifted my spirits and let me feel the tiniest bit like myself.

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