Putting on your best face

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By John Barnhart

Cancer can be a different journey for everyone. Patients not only must deal with the disease, they must also cope with the side effects of the treatment. These can include the loss of hair and eyebrows as well as skin changes.

In order to help women cope with these side effects, the American Cancer Society sponsors a program called Look Good...Feel Better. Under this program, professional cosmetologists help women with areas such as makeup application, choosing and caring for wigs and other personal appearance issues. The cosmetologists, in turn, need some training and the Cancer Society provides this, too.

One of these sessions recently took place at Bedford Memorial Hospital. Pat Bruce, who has been conducting these sessions for more than 20 years, was the trainer and Nancy Johnson served as the model. Johnson is a cancer survivor who finished the last of her course of treatments last November.

Johnson has been through the program herself. She said that, as a farmer, she has never been greatly concerned about her appearance. However, she is frequently in the public eye. She received last year's Athena Award, a month after her course of treatment was finished. She's also actively involved with Little Town Players and, with her husband, Danny, manages Johnson's Orchard and Peaks of Otter Winery.

"You don't want people saying, 'She looks so bad'," Johnson noted.

Johnson likes the program, which is why she volunteered to assist Bruce.

"It's a program that not enough people know about," she said.

She also noted that there is more to the program than learning how to look better during cancer treatment. She said there is a lot of interaction among women attending a session and it helps to be reminded that you're not the only one in this boat.

Bruce agrees. She said that ladies come as a group, interact and realize that they are not alone. They also get to laugh a little. The hair loss and skin changes that cancer treatment causes are usually only temporary, but Bruce said they can be traumatic.

In addition to the Cancer Society, the National Cosmetology Association and cosmetic companies support the program. Bruce said 900 companies donate products. Women who come to one of the sessions get a tote bag containing $200 worth of skin care products.

The program is free to any woman being treated for cancer and group sessions last two hours. Bruce said that women can schedule a one-on-one session, but those who do so have to bring their own makeup and they loose out on the camaraderie of a group session. The sessions are one time only, unless the woman experiences a recurrence of cancer.

Bruce said that the advice the cosmetologists give is strictly non-medical. Furthermore, they can't promote any particular product or use the session to drum up future business.

Cosmetologists need to meet each woman where she is and Johnson noted that no two are alike. She said that some treatments can affect a patient's fine motor skills, making her hands a bit clumsy. Furthermore, there are lifestyle issues. Johnson said that wigs didn't work for her, asking the cosmetologists to imagine wearing a wig while working with hay and chicken feed.

They also need to take a woman's normal skin color into consideration. The skin care tote bags come packed according to differing skin shades. Anita Lowe, Bedford Memorial Hospital's health services adviser, said that they will have bags available with the right shades for any sessions they sponsor.

There are other issues that cosmetologists have to consider. Treatment can make a woman's eyelashes fall out, but Bruce said that the program does not offer false eyelashes. This is because cancer treatment increases a patient's susceptibility to eye infections. This is also why ladies undergoing cancer treatment need to note when they've opened a container of eye makeup and throw it away after three months.

Bruce also warned against wearing strong-smelling hair spray or perfume while working with cancer patients. Some patients become sensitive to odor during treatment.

For more information about Look Good...Feel Better, call 1-800-395-5665 or go to www.lookgoodfeelbetter.org on the Internet. The Web site also contains tips for men and the Cancer Society has a Look Good...Feel Better brochure for men. Men can get away with a close cropped or shaved head look, but they still face issues such as increased skin sensitivity and risk of infections.