For close to 10 years, Melrose-Wakefield Hospital has been offering the program but soon local residents will have to look no further then their own backyards, as Hallmark Health expands Look Good Feel Better to Stoneham.
Kathi Whittier, a clinical social worker who runs the program, said Hallmark offers Look Good, Feel Better four times a year and will soon offer the workshop at the Stoneham site on Montvale Avenue as well. She said it's a great way for women battling cancer to come together, support each other and cope.
"It's not like group therapy," said Whittier. "They don't want that. The focus is on going in there and trying to make people feel better."
Whittier added Look Good, Feel Better is sponsored by the American Cancer Society.
Whittier said every time Hallmark Health runs a program like this, participants leave with big smiles on their faces. She said in addition to receiving a gift bag with $200 worth of beauty products, all of the women also walk away knowing they're not alone.
"It's a connection that's really nice," said Whittier. "They help each other."
"I'm a wash and wear kind of person. I've never worn a lot of makeup but I know I'm going to need it - the black circles under my eyes are getting bigger," laughed Cheryl Row, 48, a Melrose resident currently undergoing chemotherapy at Dana Farber for Stage 3A breast cancer.
Prior to the Look Good, Feel Better program Monday night, Row explained that she's looking for specific tips on improving her appearance.
"I'm expecting to learn how to wear a scarf, options for a wig and options for makeup. I'm actually looking forward to the session Monday night," she said. "I do want to be presentable because I work for a living as a business systems analyst for Thermo Fisher Scientific in Waltham."
For Row, cancer and treatments for the disease have changed not only her appearance but also her approach to life.
"I'm a person who usually does everything on [her] own," she said. "I've decided for first time in my life to join a group."
Row's cancer was discovered in July. A second spot was detected in August.
"That's when a lot of things started changing," said Row. An exceedingly private person, Row didn't share the news with many friends or family members.
"I'm the decision-maker; I didn't want everyone giving me advice and opinions," she explained.
After more tests, Row and her doctors decided to do a mastectomy on her right breast. "It was easier for me to accept than I thought it would be," Row said. "To me, if it was coming off, it was a way to get the cancer out of my body."
Row had reconstruction done during the same surgery, with surgeons implanting a saline implant. "I researched it and I can't say enough about the surgeons at Dana Farber and all their help," she added.
On Nov. 27, Row began chemotherapy. So far, the treatments have gone well with minimal side effects. But Row is prepared, nonetheless.
"I have not had side effects as I was expecting," she said. "I was prepared for nausea and fatigue. Knock on wood, I haven't had any." Row will undergo chemotherapy every three weeks for four treatments; after that, she'll have radiation treatments once a week for 12 weeks.
"I've been told that 14 to 17 days after my first [chemo] treatment to expect some hair loss," she said. "My hair is shoulder length, all one length. I didn't cut it like everyone told me. I've already purchased a wig from Dana Farber. I want to be prepared. I don't know how I'll feel [without hair]. I'll be OK as long as it doesn't grow back gray."
What to do next
Laura McIntyre, 35, also of Melrose, attended the Look Good, Feel Better program earlier this week, and like Row, was looking forward to the session. Diagnosed with Stage 3 lung cancer in October, McIntyre said she learned about the program through Whittier, a social worker at Melrose-Wakefield Hospital where McIntyre is being treated.
McIntyre is undergoing both chemotherapy and radiation, and effects have adversely affected both her skin and hair, she said.
"With chemo and radiation your skin burns," McIntyre said. "I'm 35 and I like to look nice and feel good about myself. When you don't feel good about yourself, your whole day goes downhill. I'm very excited about the program Monday night."
McIntyre's cancer was detected by a radiologist at Melrose-Wakefield Hospital after she had a routine chest x-ray. "I was sick and had a terrible cough," McIntyre remembered. "I went to the Melrose-Wakefield emergency room and they sent me for an x-ray. The next day, they called me to come back in, and I ended up having a CAT scan of my lungs and throat."
Additional tests, including a PET scan, revealed two tumors in one of McIntyre's lungs, one of them in the thyroid glands. She underwent a biopsy Oct.16; the diagnosis of Stage 3 lung cancer came back seven days later.
"My family took it very hard," McIntyre said. "I lost my mother four years ago and a dear aunt recently."
She began the dual treatments in November. "I have radiation in the morning five days a week, and chemotherapy in the afternoon on Mondays. The chemo really knocks me out. When I go to radiation in the morning, I come home, have a bite to eat and lay down. After chemo on Monday, I'll literally sleep from 6 p.m. to 4 a.m. the next morning. I'm getting more tired. I'm expecting so much of myself and with the holidays coming, it's hard."
McIntyre, who always wore makeup and fussed over her hair, described herself as a "cutie-patootie," who wore makeup everyday and always looked nice.
"Now," she continued, "I'm afraid to put anything on my face because I don't know how it's going to react. I don't know what to use, but I also don't want to look older than I am."
While McIntyre still has her hair, she said it is gradually thinning out. At the Look Good, Feel Better program, she's anxious to learn more about what to do next.
"I think I'll need a wig," she said. "I had long hair but I cut it and made layers; it's now shoulder-length. I don't even know how to put on a wig. It's depressing; you lose your eyebrows, you lose your hair."
Yet McIntyre remains upbeat and positive, citing the support she receives from her church and her family as her bedrock.
"I have three beautiful, beautiful children. I have custody of my nephew Brian McIntyre, 9, and I have a beautiful baby, Michael Thomas Fields, 3, and my daughter, Ellen Mary Fields. Of course I'm upset about the cancer, but those children keep me going," she said. McIntyre also credits the support of her fiancée, Sean, who has taken unpaid time off from work to care for her and the children.
"Looking on the bright side, I could be worse," McIntyre said. "I could be sicker; they could have never caught it."