Looking good, feeling better: Program gives cancer patients cosmetics, hope

June 25, 2011 9:31:00 PM

Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]


The doctor''s mouth was moving, but his words sounded far away, like a disembodied voice talking about someone else.  


Geneva Wright wasn''t worried about her survival -- not at first anyway. Instead, she thought about her co-workers at the bank. What would they think if they knew? She didn''t want their pity, that was for sure, and she didn''t want to be the subject of town gossip.  


"I can''t die," she thought. "I don''t want those men to see me without my breast." 


She didn''t want them to see her without makeup either.  


Wright is older now, more mature, but as she faces her second battle with breast cancer, she still cares about her appearance. It''s not about vanity, and it''s not about eyeliner or blush -- not really. Wright wants to look as good as she possibly can so women will know that it is possible to not only survive cancer, but to thrive as well, all while retaining grace, dignity and beauty.  


That''s the same message behind Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle''s "Look Good ... Feel Better" program, too. The national program, developed by the Personal Care Products Council Foundation in 1989, and later joined by the American Cancer Society and the Professional Beauty Association/National Cosmetology Association, is a free public service program pairing cancer patients with volunteer beauty professionals.  


For a few hours every other month, the hospital becomes both classroom and cosmetics candy store -- a place where women currently undergoing chemotherapy, radiation and other forms of cancer treatment can learn tips and tricks to help them cope with accompanying changes in their physical appearance.  


Baptist Memorial has offered the program since 1998, and Wright said she loved it so much when she participated that she encourages every woman battling cancer to make the time to attend, not just for the free bag of name brand cosmetics, but also to hear the personal testimonies of survivors.  


"It gives you a lift," Wright said Wednesday afternoon. "It''s fun, and it''s uplifting. It does so much for you. It does make you feel good." 




''Part of an exclusive club'' 


Jacqueline Ramsey was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer in September. She''s currently undergoing chemotherapy, and soon she will begin radiation. Like Wright, her primary concern was how the treatments would affect her appearance. Lately, she''s started to notice little changes, particularly to her skin, which prompted her to attend a recent "Look Good ... Feel Better" session. 


"I wanted to know if there was something I could do to stay looking good, because it was starting to bother me," Ramsey said Wednesday. "When you look good, you feel better." 


Ramsey said she learned a lot of beauty techniques, but most of all, she appreciated the warmth with which she was greeted by hospital staff and volunteers. 


"They were very caring," Ramsey said. "They smiled a lot, and I love that. They were just very motivational, and it made you feel like you were part of an exclusive club, or like you were part of a royal family. They have great hearts and make you feel so much love." 


Ramsey said being diagnosed with cancer can be an emotional, isolating experience, making it even more critical to spend time with positive, supportive people.  


"You just feel so alone," she said, beginning to cry. "It makes you feel like no one really cares." 


She said at a time when doctors are doing everything they can to attend to her health, the "Look Good ... Feel Better" session reminded her of the importance of taking care of her emotional health.  


"My self-esteem is higher," Ramsey said. "The things they say to encourage you make you realize you''re special and important, so you should take the extra time to let the world know you still have that glow and you''re still a beautiful person inside and out." 




Helping others is ''second nature'' 


Trish Kibe, owner of Trendsetters on Highway 45 North, volunteered with the program since its inception. She said she was inspired to participate after several clients and friends were diagnosed with cancer.  


Kibe said like Wright and Ramsey, the women she knew kept saying the same things: They were worried about the cancer, but they were even more worried about losing their hair. As a hairdresser and a woman herself, Kibe understood. 


"You can camouflage everything else, but hair is a woman''s number one accessory," Kibe said Wednesday night. "We don''t even think of it like that until we don''t have it." 


She said she shows women how to style their wigs, talks to them about wig selection, gives makeup tips and does whatever she can to help them feel better about themselves. 


"It''s just second nature," she said. "It''s something I really love to do. I like being able to help women look and feel their best, not just when they''re sick, but all the time. That''s why I''m in this industry." 


Emilie White, who also volunteers with the "Look Good ... Feel Better" program, said she would have loved something like that when she was battling ovarian cancer. She said though physical appearance isn''t important to every woman, it was important to her, and now she enjoys helping others.  


"Every session has been uplifting, positive and filled with pleasantries and laughter," White said. "Sharing with other cancer (patients) is such an important aspect." 




''You don''t even look like you have cancer'' 


Amanda Mordecai, who works as a nurse in the cancer center at Baptist Memorial, said besides receiving the gift bag of cosmetics and interacting with the volunteers, women just seem to really enjoy the session. Some, like Wright, love it so much they beg to do it again.  


"It really lightens them up when they''re feeling deflated," Mordecai said Wednesday morning.  


Wright said the word "cancer" has such a devastating impact that the physical changes that sometimes accompany the treatment -- from loss of hair, eyebrows and eyelashes to skin pigment changes -- can be extra traumatizing. 


"It''s just degrading," Wright said. "You just feel yucky." 


She said even at her worst, she was determined to look her best. She was diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer in 1987. Then, after more than 19 years in remission, it resurfaced as Stage IV in 2006. She''s been undergoing chemotherapy since then, and at the age of 71, she doesn''t believe she will ever be able to completely stop treatment.  


Nevertheless, Wright retains her appearance and something even more important -- her smile. 


"People say, ''Geneva, you don''t even look like you have cancer,''" she said as she talked with Mordecai and looked over the cosmetics included in the "Look Good ... Feel Better" kit. "Your attitude is what gets you through it, and your attitude comes from faith in God." 


She said her positive attitude also comes from her desire to help others, especially those mired in fear and darkness.  


"If what I say helps even one person, then it''s worth it," she said. "That''s what God wants me to do. I know it. I think when you forget about yourself and think about other people, it just helps you through it."

Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.