We are beating cancer

Cancer treatments are improving all the time, but they still take their toll on the body, which is why many beauty companies support the work of a charity which aims to help women battling the disease continue to look their best. Marion Andrews explains:

Good morning ladies. Welcome to Look Good Feel Better. My name is Marion and I am here to act as your hostess.” The 12 women pause from examining the contents of the large make-up bags they have just received and listen as I explain how the morning will progress.

I am feeling nervous. Recently retired from nursing, I had volunteered at the Cancer Support Centre at one of our region’s hospitals. A charity called Look Good Feel Better (LGFB) ran monthly workshops there. I had heard people raving about it, so decided to find out what it was.

I discovered LGFB was an international charity introduced in 1993 by the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association. It is supported by 40 of the leading beauty companies to benefit women and teenagers with cancer, and holds sessions in 70 hospitals and cancer care centres across the UK and 21 countries worldwide.

The cosmetic firms donate the wonderful products in the free make-up bags and train the beauticians who, in turn, volunteer their time and expertise to help patients use the cosmetics to the best effect.

Losing your hair or eyebrows and lashes whilst undergoing chemotherapy is hugely demoralising for women and many of the cancer treatments themselves bring a real change of body image. One patient told me: “I felt so isolated. Emotionally I didn’t feel like a human being, let alone a real woman.”

When the regular LGFB volunteer left, I was asked if I would consider taking on the role and I jumped at the chance.

This is my first workshop. I take a deep breath and introduce the therapists who have volunteered this morning. There are three. Stella works independently, but Julie and Clare have been released from two big stores in the city.

Our ladies sit around tables I had previously laid with crisp white linen cloths. A 12 Steps to Beauty Plan lies next to the place mat and each has a bowl containing cotton wool swabs and buds, and a sparkling mirror in place. A vase of deep-red roses in the centre of the table, with jugs and glasses of water, creates, we hope, the desired ambiance.

Stella steps forward to begin: “This is your morning ladies, so we hope you will be able to relax and enjoy yourselves.” Explaining that the best way to demonstrate the technique is to actually do it, she suggests that each woman has a turn at being ‘the model’. No one objects.

First, she demonstrates how to cleanse the skin of her first ‘model’. Then it’s their turn. There is silence as the women apply, and then remove, the cleanser. Someone pulls a face when she sees the dirty colour of the cotton wool. “Anyone would think I hadn’t washed this morning,” she jokes.

At first it feels a little formal, as people confess to being soapaholics or thinking all this beauty stuff is a waste of time. Then there’s a shriek from one of the women, “Oh! Don’t turn the mirror over, the other side is magnified.” A ripple of laughter travels around the room and suddenly it’s OK.

Someone takes a wig off because it’s getting in the way. Stories are shared. I hear snatches of conversation, “Are you going to lose your hair?” “How many chemos have you had?” “Is your skin very sensitive now?”

The beauticians work systematically through each of the steps: toning, concealing, enhancing. If there’s a problem, they assist. We reach the eye area. A couple of the women have lost their eyebrows. Clare is sensitive and shows them how to draw them in again.

It’s time to break before we get to the lippy! There are hot drinks for any who want them and, of course, I hand round the inevitable questionnaires. My nervousness has gone and is replaced by a sense of wonder.

Whether it is you who is affected or someone you love, the strain of having cancer is very real. Professionals describe it as a journey and a tedious one at that. The harsh treatments, the endless appointments and the fear which catches you unawares as you wait for results of tests and X-rays can rob you of peace and seem to take over your life. You can become a ‘cancer patient’, not a real person. It’s easy to feel lost. Those with a faith sometimes feel abandoned by God. “Where is God when I need him so much?” is an often asked question in these circumstances.

But in that room, as the women draw in eyebrows lost through treatment or discover a different shade of lipstick that lights up their whole face, God is there too. He is smiling as laughter echoes around the room and watching the therapists as they gently whisper encouragement to the women.

I can hear the women exchanging addresses as we start to clear up. The beauticians have done their magic and, for today, cancer does not have the final word. The evidence is here as 12 beautiful, brave women put the final touches to their lipstick, pack up their new make-up and carry on to face another day of living with cancer.

And me? As I lay up the table for the afternoon workshop, I feel blessed that I have been able to share this time with these women, and with God. For make no mistake, he was here this morning.
+ To find out more, contact Look Good Feel Better, West Hill House, 32 West Hill, Epsom, Surrey KT19 8JD Tel: 01372 747500