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How a breast cancer survivor built a successful clean beauty platform – the ‘Goop of the Middle East’ – on the back of beating the disease

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“I remember thinking, ‘But I am supposed to be flying to Paris in two weeks, I can’t have cancer.’”

‘I put myself last’ – how breast cancer taught mum to take care of herself

INSEAD deferred her place for a year so she could receive treatment and begin her recovery. So began a year she will never forget. First, she had a lumpectomy, then she began eight rounds of chemotherapy, followed by months of radiation therapy.

“First and foremost, I thought I was going to die, but there were many small challenges,” she recalls. “In India, you are taught that long hair and lashes are an attribute of beauty, and when my hair began falling out that was the first hard thing.

“Then, your friends start dropping around you like flies, you stop receiving invitations. Before cancer I had a social life, but people at that age don’t necessarily want to be reminded of mortality, or to see the girl with the shaved head who looks like an alien.”

From one week to the next, she was up and down. The toxicity of the medicine she was on, combined with the steroids, changed her appearance drastically and gave her severe self-esteem issues.

“I had moments where I was very determined to beat it, and then periods I would lock myself in my room and listen to the song ‘Fireflies’ by Owl City, on repeat.”

Oberoi’s value system quickly changed. Having worked for years in the luxury industry, her previous attachment to material things no longer mattered.

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She soon realised who her true friends were: “You sort the wheat from the chaff, those who would come and sit next to me every week while I took my chemo, to try and make me laugh.”

She also found inner strength she never knew she had.

“Fear drives you to become very system-oriented and process-driven. I began treating it like a project: this is what is needed and this step must be taken next.”

When you spend a year in a hospital bed, you don’t know how much time you have left, so you do everything that you possibly can to feel alive again

Anisha Oberoi

Her mother was a stalwart throughout her treatment, completely overhauling her diet.

Before, Oberoi had been healthy, but her mother, now her primary caretaker, put her on a strict anti-inflammatory, mainly plant-based, high-protein diet – with eggs and a little cheese, cutting out raw foods and keeping her hydrated with plenty of coconut water, opting for organic vegetables and lots of broths and pulses.

“My mum was religious about it, she wanted to clean me from the inside out.”

Oberoi with her mother, who put her on a strict anti-inflammatory, mainly plant-based, high-protein diet while she was fighting the disease. Photo: Anisha Oberoi

When the treatment was over and she was declared in remission, she went to study at INSEAD. She threw herself into everything and anything in a bid to feel “normal” again.

She joined the student council, was on the women’s rugby team, became part of the yearbook committee – as well as tackling her MBA. Her mentors told her she was doing too much, and to slow down.

“I said, ‘When you spend a year in a hospital bed, you don’t know how much time you have left, so you do everything that you possibly can to feel alive again.’”

Oberoi at a wedding in India in October 2011, after losing her hair following chemotherapy and other cancer treatments. Photo: Anisha Oberoi

Despite experiencing “chemo fog” and taking on all the extracurricular activities, she completed the second leg of her MBA in Singapore, and graduated with her class in July 2012, two years after the diagnosis.

“Your relationship with the world changes, you become deeper,” she reflects. “I felt reborn, with a crazy, beautiful light.

“Facing dire adversity at a young age makes you more attuned to your higher self: you emit energy that inspires those around you, like an aura. Your truth becomes your law in your universe, and you live your life with a sharper moral compass.

“Now love motivates and guides everything I do. I like who I’ve become – and I’ve learned a valuable lesson.”

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After her MBA, she began working for Amazon, and became part of the founding team in India, building its fashion business. But although she thrived at the tech giant for five years, she moved to Dubai with a nagging feeling in the back of her mind.

“I had started to feel a spiritual struggle between money and meaning: corporate roles that I was exploring felt restrictive in their opportunity to contribute to society at large, and limited in their sphere of influence.”

Her personal journey with cancer had left her with knowledge of a niche that was going untapped – that of clean beauty.

In the years following her cancer treatment, she remained on medication, kept her diet clean, and sought out clean beauty and make-up. But in the UAE, she struggled to find beauty and wellness products with ingredient transparency and ethical sourcing.

Oberoi (left) in a 2021 spring campaign for Secret Skin. Photo: Anisha Oberoi

And so the idea for the online platform Secret Skin was born, which Oberoi describes as a tech-enabled, localised “Goop of the Middle East”.

Secret Skin conducts due diligence and researches the certifications of clean beauty products before offering them on its site; its 47 brands include Augustinus Bader, Malin + Goetz, Carbon Theory and RMS Beauty.

In the three years since the platform launched, it has scooped up numerous awards and recently became a Techstars portfolio company, under the Riyadh Techstars Accelerator programme.

Oberoi accepts awards at the Images ME E-commerce Yearbook 2023 awards. Photo: Anisha Oberoi

For Oberoi, this has solved the need to make a living while doing something meaningful. “We need to move from vanity to humanity, and conscious consumption is the need of the hour.”

Breast cancer was not a gift she would have given herself, she says, but it provided some of the most valuable lessons she has received – “in self-respect, integrity and honour” – much earlier in life.

Article was originally published from here

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