Appearance is more than skin-deep for cancer patients

Tuesday, October 13, 2009
This photo released by Look Good Feel Better shows cancer survivor Nancy Lumb before (inset) and after her makeover.(Look Good Feel Better,Chris Usher)

NEW YORK -- Lipstick, moisturizer and a wig can't cure cancer. But beauty -- and beauty products -- can help heal wounded self-esteem, which often takes a big hit as patients undergo cancer treatment.

Experts say hair loss, skin discoloration and skin dryness can undermine an already physically difficult and emotionally draining process.

"Some days I didn't want anyone to see me or even have my husband look at me," says Michele VonGerichten, a breast cancer survivor. "When you are waiting for your hair to grow, you spend a lot of time looking into the mirror, just waiting for a sign that you're going back to normal."

In interviews, survivors and counselors both say the moment a person doesn't recognize herself in the mirror because of physical changes caused by treatment can be one of the lowest points of the process. VonGerichten said the minute she took charge and regained her beauty routine, her spirits improved.

VonGerichten is one of 650,000 female cancer patients in the U.S. to participate in the 20-year-old Look Good, Feel Better campaign, sponsored by the Personal Care Products Council Foundation. Free to any cancer patient, the program offers tips from 14,000 makeup and hair professionals from across the country on all things cosmetic. Topics include how to style a wig, tie a head scarf, create fake eyebrows and even out discolored skin.

"We've got lots of new drugs and treatments that make them feel less nauseated," said Trinka Hileman, a registered nurse and director of Womancare in Cape Girardeau. But many women still lose their hair during chemotherapy. "That is such a big concern when they go through treatment."

The beauty industry has long been aligned with breast cancer charities, but this isn't about research to find a cure; it's about quality of life, explains Look Good executive director Louanne Roark. It's a nonbranded program, but industry leaders like Estee Lauder and Avon eagerly participate and have donated $10 million worth of product over the years.

Most women participate through workshops at 2,500 hospitals, cancer centers, American Cancer Society offices or other community facilities per year. There are self-help videos, workbooks and a website for those who don't feel comfortable in a group setting or can't get to one of the classes.

The emphasis is hardly on glamour or vanity, said Dr. Mary Jane Massie, a psychiatrist at New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and a spokeswoman for the Look Good program. But even the least fussy person craves some normalcy, and grooming helps.

Sometimes it's the woman who really had never paid much attention to makeup and hair before who seems to get the most out if it. "You might not feel like a full functioning person in a family or a community when you're undergoing treatment," Massie said. "This program has helped people learn tips to prepare themselves to present to their world in a way that's comfortable to them."

Womancare partners with the American Cancer Society to host Look Good Feel Better events for women in Southeast Missouri. They held one in the beginning of October and will hold another event Dec. 10 at Womancare in Saint Francis Medical Center. Hileman said women sometimes come in with their wigs on and can be nervous about tilting it or taking it off so a cosmetologist can help with their makeup.

"When they see the other women are able to take their wigs off, they feel better about themselves," she said. One woman came to an event and didn't know if she would be strong enough to take her wig off, Hileman said. "She was able to because the other ladies were.

"When you have hair loss, It's not just the top of your head," she said. A lot of times a patient's eyelashes and eye brows are gone after chemotherapy. The one-night events teach the women how to use makeup to create those missing features and get a sense of normalcy.

"When they leave here they look so good, and I think it's just a pump-me-up session," Hileman said.

The American Cancer Society provides the kits for the programs and trains volunteer cosmetologists who apply makeup and help style wigs for patients.

"This is one of my absolute favorite programs," said Marcie Lawson, community manager health initiatives with the ACS. "They're often down or sad or just don't feel well. ... They kind of get pampered and get to talk to other women who are going through what they're going through."

The ACS partners with the Cosmetic Toiletry and Fragrance Association and the National Cosmetology Association and promotes through local health care providers to put on about 20 of the local one-night events each year. Lawson brings free wigs and turbans to the events, but said these things and other resources like nutritional supplements, and breast prosthesis and mastectomy bras, which hold the prosthetic breast, are available daily at ACS locations.

Southeast Missourian features editor Chris Harris contributed to this report.

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