For women grappling with the effects cancer treatment has on their appearance, a Look Good Feel Better workshop is like a makeover for the spirit.
By Chantal Richard
A cancer diagnosis can make a woman feel as though much of her life is out of her control: her body, her emotions, her future plans. When the side-effects of treatment take hold and make the face in the mirror unrecognizable, it can feel like the final blow. As Susan DaCosta puts it, “Being diagnosed with Hodgkin Lymphoma was difficult, then going through all of the physical changes that come with treatment made me feel like I was in another person’s body.” The Look Good Feel Better program was launched in Canada in 1992 to help women take back some of the control lost to cancer.
The cornerstone of the program is a free, two-hour workshop where volunteers who are experts in skin care, cosmetics or hair alternatives teach women how to look and feel more like themselves during cancer treatment. The program follows a series of steps that teaches participants everything from caring for skin that is parched from radiation to recreating the look of eyebrows and lashes when chemo has caused their hair to fall out.
Each woman in the workshop receives a kit full of personal care products and cosmetics that allow her to practise the steps on herself, guided by a volunteer. A portion of the workshop dedicated to hair alternatives allows women to try on different wigs and hats, while learning how to care for a wig or how to tie a headscarf.
Nisreen Shammout was diagnosed with breast cancer on Christmas Eve, 2013. “Getting a cancer diagnosis is overwhelming; many things feel like they are out of your control, so the small things that you can control take on a whole new meaning,” she says. “Having a say in something as simple as how you look instills a sense of normalcy, and perhaps even a sense of agency, which I think is very important when you are facing something this difficult.”
Though Look Good Feel Better hosts more than 1,500 workshops each year at 118 hospitals and cancer care centres across the country, every workshop follows a familiar rhythm. Often, the women enter the workshop feeling nervous and unsure. Many of them certainly question what made them come out to a “beauty workshop” at such a challenging time. But they soon learn that it is about much more than makeup.
As friendly volunteers in bright pink aprons explain the importance of toning and moisturizing, the practical benefits become apparent. As the faces in the mirror are brightened with mood-lifting blush, smiles come more readily. And as the energy in the room begins to change, the hum of chatter rises, stories are shared and one by one the women realize they’re not alone on their cancer journey. “The sense of community and uplifting energy that filled the room was so beneficial,” says Nisreen.
The workshops are open to women with any type of cancer, undergoing any type of treatment. Linda Johnson has been a nurse in the Ottawa, Ontario area for 40 years. She says the program is recommended to all female patients regardless of whether or not they wear makeup because of the social benefits of the workshop.
“Look Good Feel Better gets the patient away from the ‘medical’ side of cancer. They have a chance to see other women going through the same things, who share the same concerns and they learn from one another,” she says. “When they are among their peers in the workshop, they see they’re not alone and it takes some of the stigma away. They can whip off their wigs and be themselves.”
As a former volunteer workshop greeter, Linda has seen firsthand the power of the session: “They all come in quiet, but when the workshop is over you wonder if they’re ever going to stop chatting and go home,” she says with a laugh. “They’re always overwhelmed with the amount of product they receive in their kit and how helpful the volunteers are.”
Noris Pico agrees. “It took me away from the tedious and unpleasant routine of going from home to hospitals and doctors,” she says of her Look Good Feel Better workshop experience. “I felt like a VIP being pampered, to have profes¬sional cosmetic advisors explain the steps and apply the different products. I felt rejuvenated and recharged at the end of the workshop.”
As much as Noris enjoyed her workshop, she admits to one downside of the program: “My husband likes to use the skin cleanser I got in my kit, so I sometimes have to retrieve it from his side of the bathroom!”