Melrose Free Press
By Carol Brooks Ball
Oct. 21, 2010
Women undergoing treatment for breast or other types of cancer typically face a cruel conundrum: The very therapies that may be saving their lives are taking a toll on their skin and overall appearance.
But thanks to an American Cancer Society program offered regularly at Hallmark Health’s Cancer Center in Stoneham, women have an ally. The “Look Good Feel Better” program offers women key skin care and make-up techniques that counter the damage chemotherapy and radiation therapy may be taking a toll on their overall looks — and their self-esteem.
According to lookgoodfeelbetter.org, the program was founded and developed in 1989 by the Personal Care Products Council Foundation (PCPCF), the charitable arm of the trade association representing the cosmetic and personal care products industry.
Today the program is a collaboration between the PCPCF, the American Cancer Society (ACS), and the National Cosmetology Association (NCA), which includes cosmetologists, wig experts, estheticians, makeup artists, and nail technicians, all of whom are specially trained and then volunteer their time for the program.
At Hallmark Health, the local face of Look Good Feel Better (LGFB) is Kathi Whittier, MSA, LICSW, who has been running cancer support groups there for more than 20 years and the LGFB program for the past eight years.
“In my meetings with women, I provide counseling and support as they’re beginning the various stages of their treatment,” Whittier said, “and I provide encouragement and opportunity for them to attend the [LGFB] group.
“The program helps women at a very vulnerable time in their lives,” Whittier continued. “It’s about the inner self as well — self-confidence and self-image. It’s about nurturing one another, accepting one another.”
Women who take the 2-hour LGFB program must be undergoing treatment for their cancer or just about to begin treatment.
The most recent class, which took place this week, was held this month, Whittier said, in honor of October as Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Whittier offers the LGFB program at Hallmark Health four times a year, and she’ll another LGFB class in three to four months, though the program is also offered at numerous other local and city hospitals and cancer centers.
Taking care of a woman’s skin
“The majority of women who attend are coming with breast cancer,” Whittier said, though lung cancer is becoming more and more prominent, she said.
The biggest issues women undergoing cancer treatment struggle with are dry skin and the loss of their hair, Whittier explained.
For skin care, tips are offered and demonstrated by Donna Lombardo, a licensed esthetician and makeup artist who took special training for the LGFB program and volunteers her time teaching the classes.
“Skin becomes very dry because of chemotherapy and radiation,” Lombardo explained. “Skin also becomes very sensitive to products; too much alcohol in a product, for example, can really irritate the skin [of women undergoing cancer treatment].”
While Lombardo said she is prohibited from endorsing specific products, she explained that she tells women that a “sensitive skin” care line typically doesn’t have fragrance or chemicals, and is likely a safe bet.
“I also tell them it’s very important to hydrate their skin — moisturize all the time — and to use a dry washcloth and buff their skin gently to remove dead skin cells,” Lombardo said, adding that women should stay away from skin toners since they contain alcohol.
Cancer treatments also make skin more susceptible to sun damage, so Lombardo tells women to always use a sunscreen with SPF 30, “even when they are in the car.”
The challenges of hair loss
The other main issue faced by women undergoing cancer treatment — and an extremely emotional one for most women — is losing their hair.
“A challenge for women is the idea of the loss of their hair,” Whittier said. “It’s a very emotionally upsetting concept for a lot of women, and it’s another loss for them. It’s losing their own self-image, as they know it.”
To that end, LGFB provides a “nurturing safe place for women,” Whittier said, and a place “to talk about the experience of losing their hair. They also support and nurture one another as they go through their treatment.”
Since most women lose not only the hair on their head but also their eyebrows and eyelashes, Lombardo instructs them in “creating” new hair in those areas, by using eyeliner and eye pencils to “draw” them.
Women are also instructed in choosing and finding a wig, and, alternatively, fashioning a turban out of a T-shirt.
“I find that a lot of women go and try to get a wig for themselves, even if their insurance won’t pay for it,” Whittier said. “However, after they’ve lost their hair, a lot of women come to a place where they just want to get well — and since they’ve seen that the people around them still care about them [even without their hair] — the loss of their hair isn’t as important. They know that the chemo and the radiation therapy is attacking the cells and getting the cancer. For other women, however, [it’s important to them that] they continue to wear their wigs.
“[The women] lose their hair because the hair cells are temporarily stunted by the chemotherapy and/or radiation,” Whittier explained. “Then, when [the treatments finish], their hair starts to grow back and it’s usually very healthy and baby fine, and new and fresh. Sometimes it even comes back a different color, and if they’ve had straight hair, some women’s hair may come back with curls.”
When women come to the LGFB group, Whittier said since they’re all at different stages of their cancer treatments, their degree of hair loss is different as well.
“It’s a variety of where they are in their treatment — some women haven’t lost their hair as they’ve just begun treatment; others are completely bald.
“I’ve never seen anybody look or seem outwardly disturbed by another’s experience,” Whittier continued. “They tend to compliment and comfort one another though the process. Women really are there for another. Every time I have one of the [LGFB] programs, I feel very moved and touched by the compassion that we [women] have for one another. And how we can support each other as women.”
Using make-up to create ‘a glow’
Women who participate in a LGFB class are given a treat — a make-up gift bag filled with cosmetic make-up and skin care samples from some of the world’s largest cosmetic companies, including Prescriptives, Avon, Aveda, Bobbi Brown, Elizabeth Arden, Chanel, Revlon, and Estee Lauder.
“The kits are worth about $400,” Whittier said, adding that each women gets a kit specially matched to her coloring. “Then, Donna [Lombardo] shows them how to use the make-up to create a healthy glow.”
Lombardo shows each woman how to use the foundation, blush, eye make-up and lip products that are in their kit.
“I also instruct them that they should not share their makeup with any family members because of cross-contamination,” Lombardo said. And when it comes to mascara, Lombardo said “[cancer] patients can be prone to eye infections, so they should use disposable mascara wands, which can be purchased at beauty supply stores — they can even be washed — since a tube of mascara is a breeding ground for bacteria. Every time the same wand goes in and out, it’s adding more bacteria; a fresh disposable wand isn’t.”
In the make-up process, Lombardo has women apply liquid foundation first. Only then, she said, does she have them apply concealer.
“I have them put the foundation on first and then they get to see what areas need concealing,” Lombardo said. “Plus, applying it after the foundation helps the concealer stays in place. Concealer can be used to help reddened cheeks or red skin around the nose area. People think that it [concealer] is just for under the yes, but it can conceal anything — birthmarks, redness, puffiness under the eyes, etc.”
Next, comes blush. “I tell them to use whatever they prefer, pressed powder or moist stick blush,” Lombardo said. “Then I show them how to place eye makeup, and since many women undergoing chemo or radiation lose their eyebrows, I go into creating eyebrows by penciling them in.”
The final step is caring for and making up the lips, which should begin with a moisturizing regime, Lombardo said.
“I tell [the women] that Vitamin E is very good for the lips. They can buy capsules at a health food store, pop a capsule with a pin, and apply that right on their lips. They could do this at night. Then, in the morning, they can apply lip liner and lip-gloss or lipstick, whichever they prefer, which we also go over in the LGFB class.”
Women leave with confidence … and sometimes, new friends
For Lombardo, who travels anywhere from Melrose to Lexington to volunteer her skills at LGFB classes, she is the one who has benefitted — and in a very personal way.
“I really do enjoy it and I look forward to it,” Lombardo said. “And then, three years after doing this, it hit close to home when my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer.
“The chemotherapy is horrible,” she continued. “The side effects are just horrible. She did chemo for three years and now she’s taking chemo pills. I brought her to one of my LGFB programs and she really enjoyed herself.”
As for the women, “I think they really enjoy the program,” she said. “They have a feeling that they’re not alone; there are other women in the room who are undergoing the same process of chemo. Some of the women even make friends.
“At the end [of the class], they always say how much fun they had. I end it by saying that ‘I hope everyone has a date tonight!’”
While Lombardo is there as a volunteer — she is the former owner of Skin Sensations in Saugus, and is looking to relocate her business to Melrose — she said that if women approach her at the end of a LGFB class for additional skin care and make-up counseling, she will work with them privately.
Whittier, who said next month she’s beginning a new breast cancer support group for women who are newly diagnosed (see sidebar for more information), explained that she knows the LGFB program helps women during a very difficult time in their lives.
“At the end of the session, I see women with a twinkle in their eye,” she said. “They’re happy, and for a minute they have a reprieve from worrying about their treatment and their cancer. The aloneness has decreased in their lives.”