Cythnia Besteman and her family grew up in Seattle and at the Bellevue Club. In 2011 she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and it changed her trajectory for good. Although she had relocated to New York by then, her story—including launching an all-natural skin-care line for women with cancer—comes full circle as she prepares to donate her products to local hospitals.
Reflections magazine: You founded Violets Are Blue after your breast cancer diagnosis; why was skin care so important to you?
Cynthia Besteman: For me, it was the fact that my diagnosis came out of the blue. I had no family history, I work out, I rarely drink, I never smoked, and I haven’t had red meat or pork for 25 years. So it really made me look at external factors. I sort of went on a rampage, and I cleared our apartment of every inch of plastic. I changed our sheets, I changed our towels, our detergent, our cookware, everything. I had been using a skin-care brand that touted itself as being all-natural, and I researched their ingredients. After simply typing the ingredients into the computer, I freaked out. I was like, oh my God, this stuff is really bad. Around that time there was a pharmacy near my house that had these salves for babies when they get sick. You put the salve on their skin because it would absorb quickly into their bloodstream. I immediately correlated the two and thought any paraben or toxin we’re putting on our skin is being absorbed into the bloodstream.
RM: So you started to make your own skin-care products right then and there?
CB: I had the luxury of taking time off work when I got sick. My husband and I are real estate partners, and he said, “Do whatever you need to get yourself healthy.” There was a class 10 blocks from our house on how to make your own skin care. I signed up for it thinking it’d just be fun. But then, when I was in treatment I met women who didn’t have the luxury to take time off work or who didn’t have the energy to sit in the drugstore and read the backs of labels. And that’s when I decided to make skin care for women who are sick. It’s one less thing for them to worry about. I wanted to create something to give to women and focus on being healthy as opposed to being sick.
RM: But you didn’t stop there.
CB: When I was creating the products, my friends and family fell in love with them. So I created two lines. The Signature line, which 10 percent of sales goes to support the donations, and the Beloved line, which is specifically for women in treatment. I approached Mount Sinai and the Dubin Center, which had just opened up when I was being treated. It was a great place to go. It honestly felt like a spa. They taught meditation, they taught you how to eat better, they brought in Reiki practitioners to help women during their infusions. Everyone had a smile on their face, and I wanted to take that feeling and put it into my products. Again, it was all about being healthy instead of being sick. So I approached them said, “I’m creating this skin-care line, and I’d love to be able to donate to women on their first day of chemo.” Luckily, I didn’t have chemo, just radiation, but what I hear is that day can be scarier than the day of diagnosis because you don’t know how your body is going to react.
RM: Can you explain a little about what happens to the skin during chemo and radiation?
CB: Often the skin is zapped of any moisture. It’s basically rapid aging of 10 years in a short time because every ounce of water is sucked from your body. Your nails might crack, your feet might crack, you’re parched beyond belief, and your skin is dry, scaly and sensitive to the touch. That’s why I wanted to focus on nourishing oils that are really simple.
RM: Do you remember the moment when you decided to turn it into a full-blown business?
CB: It was the easiest decision I’ve ever made. I was working real estate for 15 years. It was a successful business, but I was stressed out all the time. We were working 24/7 and clients were calling us at two in the morning if they were in Europe. Saturdays, Sundays—we never had a moment—we couldn’t even take a vacation. I think that’s also part of the reason I got sick. I remember thinking, six months before my diagnosis, something has got to give; something has got to change. I remember saying, “I want that Oprah moment when women sit on the couch and say, ‘I had my aha! moment.’” Meanwhile, I was going down that road without having a specific a-ha moment. It was just sitting in class making my own skin care products and thinking, I want to do this for other women. I want to give this gift to other women. Cut to three months down the road and I’m talking to a biochemist and I’m formulating six months down the road. It wasn’t like I said, “I want to do this,” I just started doing it.
RM: What were your greatest challenges?
CB: You don’t know what you don’t know until you start doing it. I envisioned that I’d be sitting there making these beautiful potions and delivering them to women, but I didn’t think about the logistics—the shipping, finding a screen printer for labels, finding the right glassware, the perfect packaging for the deodorant. One of the first things I did was enroll myself in a group of women entrepreneurs, which has been really helpful because we all sort of go through the same thing at different times, so we can help each other through it. It makes you committed. There would be many days of sitting in my living room, thinking, what did I do, what did I sign up for?
RM: How do you maintain your high-quality standards?
CB: I use a bunch of different companies, but one in particular in Eugene, Oregon. They do a lot of sourcing work for me and I trust them. Everyone I work with is vetted. I have to find people I trust, and I’ve focused on companies that are cruelty-free and sourced from a green place. Finding the oils can be a really fun process.
RM: Does it infuriate you that so many companies don’t go to such lengths to make their products healthy?
CB: In some ways, but what’s really exciting is there are a lot of green companies coming up by supply and demand. I think many women are getting educated on the idea that they can have just as good, if not better, products from green companies. What infuriates me more are the companies that see the turn toward green, and because it would cost them a lot of money to go back and do R&D and change their formulas, now they are touting “coconut-infused hair wash” and women are buying into that. If you read the back of that label, it probably says “coconut essence” and is the very last ingredient. But also women aren’t taking five minutes to read the back of the label. All you have to do is quickly Google the ingredients.
RM: Is there a quick hit list of ingredients to be on the lookout for?
CB: Unfortunately, there are just too many. I suggest just taking your favorite products and putting them through a Google search or ewg.org. That’s a great website. It gives you a rating on what’s good or bad.
RM: Your line is now carried in Anthropologie, Credo and other major national outlets. What’s in store for the future?
CB: We’re very happy with those relationships and feel like they’re companies we can grow with. And I hope as we grow, I can afford more hospital donations. Right now I can only afford to do the one hospital, but as the company grows, I would love to work something out with Swedish hospital in Seattle (where I’m from). I’m picky about the hospitals I want to work with because I really want them to incorporate natural ideas, like Reiki, acupuncture, meditation—the whole spiritual side to healing as well as Western medicine.
RM: What does the giving aspect bring to your life?
CB: What’s amazing is right now I take and donate 20 Beloved packages a week, and when I package them, I package them with intention. I think about the women and what they’re going through in their day. I deliver them directly to the chemo room and walk in and see the nurses light up. I get cards from patients, or they e-mail me about how much it made their day. Just one card can carry me through six months. I feel like sometimes I’m doing it more for myself. But what’s great is the proceeds from our signature line go to support the Beloved Foundation, so it’s women helping women; I’m just the conduit.
RM: Do you have any advice for women who want to take their tough situation and turn it into a positive?
CB: Follow your heart. There are usually two types of women. One type is women who want to get through it and get back to their lives the way that they were. When you’re going through treatment, you feel like your universe has been altered. Many women who love their jobs, love being a mom, just want to get back to that. Then there’s another group of women who needed it to be a conduit for change. To those women, just open yourself up. Once I got sick, my mantra was “say yes to everything; don’t say no.” You never know where it’s going to lead, but you are actively searching for something.
For more information, please visit violetsareblueskincare.com.